Low Background Steel — So Hot Right Now

The nuclear age changed steel, and for decades we had to pay the price for it. The first tests of the atomic bomb were a milestone in many ways, and have left a mark in history and in the surface of the Earth. The level of background radiation in the air increased, and this had an effect on the production of steel, so that steel produced since 1945 has had elevated levels of radioactivity. This can be a problem for sensitive instruments, so there was a demand for steel called low background steel, which was made before the trinity tests.

The Bessemer process pumps air through the iron to remove impurities. shropshirehistory.com

The production of steel is done with the Bessemer process, which takes the molten pig iron and blasts air through it. By pumping air through the steel, the oxygen reacts with impurities and oxidizes, and the impurities are drawn out either as gas or slag, which is then skimmed off. The problem is that the atmospheric air has radioactive impurities of its own, which are deposited into the steel, yielding a slightly radioactive material. Since the late 1960s steel production uses a slightly modified technique called the BOS, or Basic Oxygen Steelmaking, in which pure oxygen is pumped through the iron. This is better, but radioactive material can still slip through. In particular, we’re interested in cobalt, which dissolves very easily in steel, so it isn’t as affected by the Bessemer or BOS methods. Sometimes cobalt is intentionally added to steel, though not the radioactive isotope, and only for very specialized purposes.

Recycling is another reason that modern steel stays radioactive. We’ve been great about recycling steel, but the downside is that some of those impurities stick around.

Why Do We Need Low Background Steel?

Imagine you have a sensor that needs to be extremely sensitive to low levels of radiation. This could be Geiger counters, medical devices, or vehicles destined for space exploration. If they have a container that is slightly radioactive it creates an unacceptable noise floor. That’s where Low Background Steel comes in.

A person is placed into a low background steel container with sensitive equipment to measure the radioactivity of the body, which may be near the background level. Photo from orau.org

So where do you get steel, which is a man-made material, that was made before 1945? Primarily from the ocean, in sunken ships from WWII. They weren’t exposed to the atomic age air when they were made, and haven’t been recycled and mixed with newer radioactive steel. We literally cut the ships apart underwater, scrape off the barnacles, and reuse the steel.

Fortunately, this is a problem that’s going away on its own, so the headline is really only appropriate as a great reference to a popular movie. After 1975, testing moved underground, reducing, but not eliminating, the amount of radiation pumped into the air. Since various treaties ending the testing of nuclear weapons, and thanks to the short half-life of some of the radioactive isotopes, the background radiation in the air has been decreasing. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.26 years, which means that steel is getting less and less radioactive on its own (Cobalt-60 from 1945 would now be at .008% of original levels). The newer BOS technique exposes the steel to fewer impurities from the air, too. Eventually the need for special low background steel will be just a memory.

Oddly enough, steel isn’t the only thing that we’ve dragged from the bottom of the ocean. Ancient Roman lead has also had a part in modern sensing.

Roam the Wastelands with this Fallout-Themed Mini Geiger Counter

For anyone who has worked with radioactive materials, there’s something that’s oddly comforting about the random clicks of a Geiger counter. And those comforting clicks are exactly why we like this simple pocket Geiger counter.

Another good reason to like [Tim]’s build is the Fallout theme of the case. While not an item from the game, the aesthetic he went for with the 3D-printed case certainly matches the Fallout universe. The counter itself is based on the popular Russian SBT-11A G-M tubes that are floating around eBay these days. You might recall them from coverage of this minimalist Geiger counter, and if you were inspired to buy a few of the tubes, here’s your chance for a more polished build. The case is stuffed with a LiPo pack, HV supply, and a small audio amp to drive the speaker. The video below shows it clicking merrily from a calibration source.

We can see how this project could be easily expanded — a small display that can show the counts per minute would be a great addition. But there’s something about how pocketable this is, and just the clicking alone is enough for us.

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Soviet Era Smoke Detector Torn Down, Revealing Plutonium

It’s widely known that a smoke detector is a good ionizing radiation source, as they contain a small amount of americium-241, a side product of nuclear reactors. But what about other sources? [Carl Willis] got hold of an old Soviet era smoke detector and decided to tear it down and see what was inside. This, as he found out, isn’t something you should do lightly, as the one he used ended up containing an interesting mix of radioactive materials, including small amounts of plutonium-239, uranium-237, neptunium-237 and a selection of others. In true hacker fashion, he detected these with a gamma ray spectroscope he has in his spare bedroom, shielded from other sources with lead bricks and copper and tin sheets. Continue reading “Soviet Era Smoke Detector Torn Down, Revealing Plutonium”

Diamond Batteries That Last For Millennia

Like many industrialized countries, in the period after the Second World War the United Kingdom made significant investments in the field of nuclear reactors. British taxpayers paid for reactors for research, the military, and for nuclear power.

Many decades later that early crop of reactors has now largely been decommissioned. Power too cheap to meter turned into multi-billion pound bills for safely coping with the challenges posed by many different types of radioactive waste generated by the dismantling of a nuclear reactor, and as the nuclear industry has made that journey it in turn has spawned a host of research projects based on the products of the decommissioning work.

One such project has been presented by a team at Bristol University; their work is on the property of diamonds in generating a small electrical current when exposed to radioactive emissions. Unfortunately their press release and video does not explain the mechanism involved and our Google-fu has failed to deliver, but if we were to hazard a guess we’d ask them questions about whether the radioactivity changes the work function required to release electrons from the diamond, allowing the electricity to be harvested through a contact potential difference. Perhaps our physicist readers can enlighten us in the comments.

So far their prototype uses a nickel-63 source, but they hope to instead take carbon-14 from the huge number of stockpiled graphite blocks from old reactors, and use it to create radioactive diamonds that require no external source. Since the output of the resulting cells will be in proportion to their radioactivity their life will be in the same order of their radioactive half-life. 5730 years for half-capacity in the case of carbon-14.

Of course, it is likely that the yield of electricity will not be high, with tiny voltages and currents this may not represent a free energy miracle. But it will be of considerable interest to the designers of ultra-low-maintenance long-life electronics for science, the space industry, and medical implants.

We’ve put their video below the break. It’s a straightforward explanation of the project, though sadly since it’s aimed at the general public it’s a little short on some of the technical details. Still, it’s one to watch.

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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.

High Energy Gardening Means Nuking Plants

We live in a world transformed by our ability to manipulate the nucleus of atoms. Nuclear power plants provide abundant energy without polluting the air, yet on the other hand thousands of nuclear warheads sit in multiple countries ready to annihilate everything, even if it’s not on purpose. There are an uncountable number of other ways that humanity’s dive into nuclear chemistry has impacted the lives of people across the world, from medical imaging equipment to smoke detectors and even, surprisingly, to some of the food that we eat.

After World War 2, there was a push to find peaceful uses for atomic energy. After all, dropping two nuclear weapons on a civilian population isn’t great PR and there’s still a debate on whether or not their use was justified. Either way, however, the search was on to find other uses for atomic energy besides bombs. While most scientists turned their attention to creating a viable nuclear power station (the first of which would only come online in 1954, almost ten years after the end of World War 2), a few scientists turned their attention to something much less obvious: plants.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Nuclear Powered Random Number Generator

Random number generators come in all shapes and sizes. Some are software based while others, known as true random number generators, are hardware based. These can be created from thermal noise, the photoelectric effect and other methods. But none of these were good enough for [M.daSilva]. He would base his off of the radioactive decay of Uranium 238, and construct a working nuclear powered random number generator.


Because radioactive decay is unpredictable by nature, it makes for an excellent source for truly random data. The process is fairly simple. A piece of old fiestaware plate is used for the radioactive source. Put it in a lead enclosure along with a Geiger tube. Then wire in some pulse shaping circuitry and a microcontroller to count the alpha particles. And that’s about it. [M.daSilva] still has to do some statistical analysis to ensure the numbers are truly random, along with making a nice case for his project. But all in all, it seems to be working quite well.

Be sure to check out the video for quick rundown of [M.daSilva’s] project. If randomness is your thing, make sure you check out entropy harvested from uninitialized RAM, and the story behind the NIST randomness beacon.

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