[Ben Krasnow] Builds A Mass Spectrometer

One of the features that made Scientific American magazine great was a column called “The Amateur Scientist.” Every month, readers were treated to experiments that could be done at home, or some scientific apparatus that could be built on the cheap. Luckily, [Ben Krasnow]’s fans remember the series and urged him to tackle a build from it: a DIY mass spectrometer. (Video, embedded below the break.)

[Ben] just released the video below showing early experiments with a copper tube contraption that was five months in the making; it turns out that analytical particle physics isn’t as easy as it sounds. The idea behind mas spectrometry is to ionize a sample, accelerate the ions as they pass through a magnetic field, and measure the deflection of the particles as a function of their mass-to-charge ratio. But as [Ben] discovered, the details of turning a simple principle into a working instrument are extremely non-trivial.

His rig uses filaments extracted from carefully crushed incandescent lamps to ionize samples of potassium iodide chloride; applied to the filament and dried, the salt solution is ionized when the filament is heated. The stream of ions is accelerated by a high-voltage field and streamed through a narrow slit formed by two razor blades. A detector sits orthogonal to the emitter across a powerful magnetic field, with a high-gain trans-impedance amplifier connected. With old analog meters and big variacs, the whole thing has a great mad scientist vibe to it that reminds us a bit of his one-component interferometer setup.

[Ben]’s data from the potassium sample agreed with expected results, and the instrument is almost sensitive enough to discern the difference between two different isotopes of potassium. He promises upgrades to the mass spec in the future, including perhaps laser ionization of the samples. We’re looking forward to that.

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How To Measure The Extremely Small: Atomic Mass

How does one go about measuring the mass of an object? Mass is defined as the amount of matter an object contains. This is very different from weight, of course, as the mass of our object would remain the same despite the presence or size of a gravitational field. It is safe to say, however,  that most laboratory measurement systems are here on Earth, and we can use the Earth’s gravity to aid in our mass measurement. One way is to use a balance and a known amount of mass. Simply place our object on one side of the balance, and keep adding known amounts of mass to the other side until the balance is balanced.

But what if our object is very small…too small to see and too light to measure with gravity? How does one measure the mass of single atom? Furthermore, how does one determine how much of an object consists of a particular type of atom? There are two commonly used tools just for this purpose. Chances are you’ve heard of one of these but not the other. These tools used to measure substances on the atomic level is the focus of today’s article.

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