Open Source Cloud Chamber

If you are a certain age, there were certain science toys you either had, or more likely wanted. A chemistry set, a microscope, a transparent human body, and (one of several nuclear toys) a cloud chamber. Technically, a Wilson cloud chamber (named after inventor Charles Wilson) isn’t a toy. For decades it was a serious scientific tool responsible for the discovery of the positron and the muon.

The principle is simple. You fill a sealed chamber with a supersaturated water or alcohol vapor. Ionizing radiation will cause trails in the vapor. With a magnetic field, the trails will curve depending on their charge.

If you didn’t have a cloud chamber, you can build your own thanks to the open source plans from [M. Bindhammer]. The chamber uses alcohol, a high voltage supply, and a line laser. It isn’t quite the dry ice chamber you might have seen in the Sears Christmas catalog. A petri dish provides a clear observation port.

We’ve covered cloud chamber builds before, ranging from the simple to ones that use thermoelectric coolers.

An actively cooled cloud chamber

This cloud chamber is designed to keep the environment friendly for observing ionizing radiation. The group over at the LVL1 Hackerspace put it together and posted everything you need to know to try it out for yourself.

A cloud chamber uses a layer of alcohol vapor as a visual indicator of ionizing particles. As the name suggests, this vapor looks much like a cloud and the particles rip though it like tiny bullets. You can’t see the particles, but the turbulence they cause in the vapor is quite visible. Check out the .GIF example linked at the very bottom of their writeup.

The chamber itself uses a Peltier cooler and a CPU heat sink. The mounting and insulation system is brilliant and we think it’s the most reliable way we’ve seen of putting one of these together. Just remember that you need a radioactive source inside the chamber or you’ll be waiting a long time to see any particles. They’re using a test source here, but we saw a cloud chamber at our own local Hackerspace that used thoriated tungsten welding rods which are slightly radioactive.

[Thanks JAC_101]

Researching cosmic rays with cloud chambers

In the late 1940s, the US Naval Research Laboratory used a few German-built V2 rockets to study cosmic rays from above Earth’s atmosphere. To do this, a nitrogen-powered cloud chamber was fitted inside the nose cone of these former missiles, sent aloft, and photographed every 25 seconds during flight. When [Markus] read about these experiments, he thought it would be an excellent way to study cosmic rays from a high altitude balloon and set about building his own Wilson cloud chamber.

Cloud chambers work by supersaturating the atmosphere with water or alcohol vapor. This creates a smoky cloud inside the chamber, allowing for the visualization of radiation inside the cloud. Usually the clouds in these chambers are made in a very cold environment using dry ice, but rapidly decreasing the air pressure in the chamber will work just as well, as [Markus] discovered.

[Markus]’s small cloud chamber uses a CO2 cartridge to provide the pressure in the cloud chamber before dumping the CO2 out of the chamber with the help of a solenoid valve.

In the video after the break, [Markus] demonstrates his cloud chamber by illuminating the cloud with a laser pointer and introducing a few alpha particles with a sample of Americium 241. It looks very cool, and seems to be useful enough to count cosmic rays aboard a balloon or amateur rocket.

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Your very own cloud chamber


[Kenneth] and [Jeff] spent a weekend building a cloud chamber. This is a detection device for radiation particles that are constantly bombarding the earth. It works by creating an environment of supersaturated alcohol vapor which condenses when struck by a particle travelling through the container, leaving a wispy trail behind. This was done on the cheap, using isopropyl alcohol and dry ice. They already had a beaker, and after a few tries figured out that the dry ice worked best when serving as a bed for the flask. A black piece of paper was added inside the base of the container to help raise the contrast when looking for condensate. They experimented with a couple of different methods for warming the alcohol, including an immersion heater built from power resistors.

There’s a video explaining the apparatus which we’ve embedded after the break. It’s a bit hard to see evidence of particle travel in the video but that’s all the more reason you should give this a try yourself.

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