DIY Repair Brings An X-Ray Microscope Back Into Focus

Aside from idle curiosity, very few of us need to see inside chips and components to diagnose a circuit. But reverse engineering is another story; being able to see what lies beneath the inscrutable epoxy blobs that protect the silicon within is a vital capability, one that might justify the expense involved in procuring an X-ray imager.  But what’s to be done when such an exotic and expensive — not to mention potentially deadly — machine breaks down? Obviously, you fix it yourself!

To be fair, [Shahriar]’s Faxitron MX-20 digital X-ray microscope was only a little wonky. It still generally worked, but just took a while to snap into the kind of sharp focus that he needs to really delve into the guts of a chip. This one problem was more than enough to justify tearing into the machine, but not without first reviewing the essentials of X-ray production — a subject that we’ve given a detailed look, too — to better understand the potential hazards of a DIY repair.

With that out of the way and with the machine completely powered down, [Shahriar] got down to the repair. The engineering of the instrument is pretty impressive, as it should be for something dealing with high voltage, heavy thermal loads, and ionizing radiation. The power supply board was an obvious place to start, since electrostatically focusing an X-ray beam depends on controlling the high voltage on the cathode cup. After confirming the high-voltage module was still working, [Shahriar] homed in on a potential culprit — a DIP reed relay.

Replacing that did the trick, enough so that he was able to image the bad component with the X-ray imager. The images are amazing; you can clearly see the dual magnetic reed switches, and the focus is so sharp you can make out the wire of the coil. There are a couple of other X-ray treats, so make sure you check them out in the video below.

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Building A DIY Cloud Chamber

[RCLifeOn] happened to come into possession of some radioactive uranium ore. He thus decided to build a cloud chamber to visualize the products of radioactive decay in a pleasing visual manner.

The construction is fairly straightforward stuff. A 3D-printer build plate was used to heat isopropyl alcohol to a vapor, while a bank of thermoelectric coolers then cool the alcohol down to -30 C to create a dense fog. The build uses a glass chamber with a bank of powerful LEDs to illuminate the fog, making it easier to see the trails from radioactive particles passing through. [RCLifeOn] later used a variety of radioactive sources to deliver a bunch of particles into the chamber for more action, too. He also experimented with blocking particles with a variety of materials.

It’s one of the bigger cloud chambers we’ve seen, and seems to work great. You can build a simple version pretty easily, or you could travel to a local museum or science center if you’re too busy to tackle it at home. Video after the break.

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Screwdrivers And Nuclear Safety: The Demon Core

Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin were two of many people who worked on the Manhattan Project. They might not be household names, but we believe they are the poster children for safety procedures. And not in a good way.

Harry Daghlian (CC-BY-SA 3.0, Arnold Dion)

Slotin assembled the core of the “Gadget” — the plutonium test device at the Trinity test in 1945. He was no stranger to working in a lab with nuclear materials. It stands to reason that if you are making something as dangerous as a nuclear bomb, it is probably hazardous work. But you probably get used to it, like some of us get used to working around high voltage or deadly chemicals.

Making nuclear material is hard and even more so back then. But the Project had made a third plutonium core — one was detonated at Trinity, the other over Nagasaki, and the final core was meant to go into a proposed second bomb that was not produced.

The cores were two hemispheres of plutonium and gallium. The gallium allowed the material to be hot-pressed into spherical shapes. Unlike the first two cores, however, the third one — one that would later earn the nickname “the demon core” — had a ring around the flat surfaces to contain nuclear flux during implosion. The spheres are not terribly dangerous unless they become supercritical, which would lead to a prompt critical event. Then, they would release large amounts of neutrons. The bombs, for example, would force the two halves together violently. You could also add more nuclear material or reflect neutrons back into the material.

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The Radioactive Source Missing In Australian Desert Has Been Found

Nuclear material is relatively safe when used, stored, and managed properly. This generally applies to a broad range of situations, from nuclear medicine to nuclear power generation. Some may argue it’s impossible to use nuclear weapons safely. In any case, stringent rules exist to manage nuclear material for good reason.

Sometimes, though, things go wrong, mistakes are made, and that nuclear material ends up going AWOL. That’s the situation that faced authorities in Australia, as they scoured over a thousand kilometers of desert highway for a tiny missing radioactive source with the potential to cause serious harm. Thankfully, authorities were able to track it down.

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Broken Genes And Scrambled Proteins: How Radiation Causes Biological Damage

If decades of cheesy sci-fi and pop culture have taught us anything, it’s that radiation is a universally bad thing that invariably causes the genetic mutations that gifted us with everything from Godzilla to Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish. There’s a kernel of truth there, of course. One only needs to look at pictures of what happened to Hiroshima survivors or the first responders at Chernobyl to see extreme examples of what radiation can do to living tissues.

But as is usually the case, a closer look at examples a little further away from the extremes can be instructive, and tell us a little more about how radiation, both ionizing and non-ionizing, can cause damage to biochemical structures and processes. Doing so reveals that, while DNA is certainly in the crosshairs for damage by radiation, it’s not the only target — proteins, carbohydrates, and even the lipids that form the membranes within cells are subject to radiation damage, both directly and indirectly. And the mechanisms underlying all of this end up revealing a lot about how life evolved, as well as being interesting in their own right.

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New Study Tells Us Where To Hide When The Nukes Are Coming

Geopolitics is a funny thing. Decades can go by with little concern, only for old grudges to suddenly boil to the surface and get the sabers a-rattlin’. When those sabers happen to be nuclear weapons, it can be enough to have you mulling the value of a bomb shelter in your own backyard.

Yes, every time the world takes a turn for the worse, we start contemplating what we’d do in the event of a nuclear attack. It’s already common knowledge that stout reinforced concrete buildings offer more protection than other flimsier structures. However, a new study has used computer modelling to highlight the best places to hide within such a building to maximise your chances of survival.

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The Robots Of Fukushima: Going Where No Human Has Gone Before (And Lived)

The idea of sending robots into conditions that humans would not survive is a very old concept. Robots don’t heed oxygen, food, or any other myriad of human requirements. They can also be treated as disposable, and they can also be radiation hardened, and they can physically fit into small spaces. And if you just happen to be the owner of a nuclear power plant that’s had multiple meltdowns, you need robots. A lot of them. And [Asianometry] has provided an excellent synopsis of the Robots of Fukushima in the video below the break.

Starting with robots developed for the Three Mile Island incident and then Chernobyl, [Asianometry] goes into the technology and even the politics behind getting robots on the scene, and the crossover between robots destined for space and war, and those destined for cleaning up after a meltdown.

The video goes further into the challenges of putting a robot into a high radiation environment. Also interesting is the state of readiness, or rather the lack thereof, that prompted further domestic innovation.

Obviously, cleaning up a melted down reactor requires highly specialized robots. What’s more, robots that worked on one reactor didn’t work on others, creating the need for yet more custom built machines. The video discusses each, and even touches on future robots that will be needed to fully decommission the Fukushima facility.

For another look at some of the early robots put to work, check out the post “The Fukushima Robot Diaries” which we published over a decade ago.

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