With a seemingly endless list of shortages of basic items trotted across newsfeeds on a daily basis, you’d be pardoned for not noticing any one shortage in particular. But in among the shortages of everything from eggs to fertilizers to sriracha sauce has been a growing realization that we may actually be running out of something so fundamental that it could have repercussions that will be felt across all aspects of our technological society: helium.
The degree to which helium is central to almost every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. Helium’s unique properties, like the fact that it remains liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, contribute to its use in countless industrial processes. From leak detection and welding to silicon wafer production and cooling the superconducting magnets that make magnetic resonance imaging possible, helium has become entrenched in technology in a way that belies its relative scarcity.
But where does helium come from? As we’ll see, the second lightest element on the periodic table is not easy to come by, and considerable effort goes into extracting and purifying it enough for industrial use. While great strides are being made toward improved methods of extraction and the discovery of new deposits, for all practical purposes helium is a non-renewable resource for which there are no substitutes. So it pays to know a thing or two about how we get our hands on it.
Continue reading “Mining And Refining: Helium”
Depending on the context of the situation, the staccato clicks or chirps of a Geiger counter can be either comforting or alarming. But each pip is only an abstraction, an aural indication of when a particle or ray of ionizing radiation passed through a detector. Knowing where that happened might be important, too, under the right circumstances.
While this plasma radiation detector is designed more as a demonstration, it does a pretty good job at localizing where ionization events are happening. Designed and built by [Jay Bowles], the detector is actually pretty simple. Since [Jay] is the type of fellow with plenty of spare high-voltage power supplies lying around, he took a 6 kV flyback supply from an old build and used it here. The detector consists of a steel disk underneath a network of fine wires. Perched atop a frame of acrylic and powered by a 9 V battery, the circuit puts high-voltage across the plate and the wires. After a substantial amount of tweaking, [Jay] got it adjusted so that passing alpha particles from a sample of americium-241 left an ionization trail between the conductors, leading to a miniature lightning bolt.
In the video below, the detector sounds very similar to a Geiger counter, but with the added benefit of a built-in light show. We like the way it looks and works, although we’d perhaps advise a little more caution to anyone disassembling a smoke detector. Especially if you’re taking apart Soviet-era smoke alarms — you might get more than you bargained for.
Continue reading “Plasma Discharges Show You Where The Radiation Is”