If you want to measure radioactivity, nothing really beats a Geiger counter: compact, rugged, and reasonably easy to use, they’re by far the most commonly used tool to detect ionizing radiation. However, several other methods have been used in the past, and while they may not be very practical today, recreating them can make for an interesting experiment.
[Mirko Pavleski] used easily obtainable components to build one such device known as an alpha radiation spark detector. Invented in 1945, a spark detector contains a strong electric field into which discharges are triggered by ionizing radiation. Unlike a Geiger-Müller tube, it uses regular air, which makes it sensitive only to alpha radiation; beta and gamma rays don’t cause enough ionization at ambient pressure. Fortunately, alpha radiation is the main type emitted by the americium tablets found in old smoke detectors, so a usable source shouldn’t be too hard to find.
The construction of this device is very simple: a few thin copper wires are suspended above a round metal can, while a cheap high-voltage source provides a strong electric field between them. Sparks fly from the wires to the can when an alpha source is brought nearby; a series resistor limits the current to ensure the wires don’t overheat and melt.
Although not really practical as a measurement device, the spark detector can nevertheless be used to perform simple experiments with radioactivity. As an example, [Mirko] demonstrates in the video embedded below that alpha particles are stopped by a piece of paper and therefore present no immediate danger to humans. The high voltage present in the device does however, so care must be taken with the detector more than with the radiation source.
Cloud chambers are an exciting and highly visual science experiment. They’re fascinating to watch as you can see the passage of subatomic particles from radioactive decay with your very own eyes. Many elect to build small chambers based on thermoelectric Peltier elements, but [Cloudylabs] decided to do something on a grander scale.
[Cloudylabs] started building cloud chambers after first seeing one in a museum back in 2010. The first prototype was an air-cooled Peltier device, with a cooled area of just 4x4cm. Over the years, and after building many more Peltier-based chambers, it became apparent that the thermoelectric modules were somewhat less than robust, often failing after many thermal cycles. Wanting to take things up a notch, [Cloudylabs] elected to build a much larger unit based on phase-change technology, akin to the way a refrigerator works.
The final product is astounding, consisting of a 32x18cm actively cooled area mounted within a large glass viewing case. A magnet is mounted underneath which causes certain particles to curve in relation to the field, as well as an electrically charged grid up top. The chamber is capable of operating for up to 12 hours without requiring any user intervention.
By stacking several Peltier coolers in a cascade, it’s possible to increase the temperature differential generated. In this design, the copper plate of the chamber is cooled down to -33 degrees Fahrenheit (-36.11 Celcius), more than cold enough for the experiment to work. Alcohol is added to the glass chamber, and when it reaches the cold plate, it creates a super-saturated vapor. When disturbed by charged particles zipping out of a radioactive source, the vapor condenses, leaving a visible trail.
Cloud chambers are a popular experiment to try at home. It’s a great science fair project, and one that can be easily constructed with old computer parts and a couple of cheap modules from eBay. Just be careful when experimenting with radioactive sources. Video after the break.
You may have heard the phrase “flip-chip” before: it’s a broad term referring to several integrated circuit packaging methods, the common thread being that the semiconductor die is flipped upside down so the active surface is closest to the PCB. As opposed to the more traditional method in which the IC is face-up and connected to the packaging with bond wires, this allows for ultimate packaging efficiency and impressive performance gains. We hear a lot about advances in the integrated circuits themselves, but the packages that carry them and the issues they solve — and sometimes create — get less exposure.
Let’s have a look at why semiconductor manufacturers decided to turn things on their head, and see how radioactive solder and ancient Roman shipwrecks fit in.
When the topic is radiation detection, thoughts turn naturally to the venerable Geiger-Müller tube. It’s been around for ages, Russian surplus tubes are available for next to nothing, and it’s easy to use. But as a vacuum tube it can be somewhat delicate, and the high voltages needed to run it can be a little on the risky side.
Luckily, there are other ways to see what’s going on in the radioactive world, like this semiconductor radiation detector. [Robert Gawron] built it as a proof-of-concept after having built a few G-M tube detectors before. His solid-state design relies on a reverse-biased photodiode conducting when ionizing radiation hits the P-N junction. The tiny signal is amplified by a pair of low-noise op-amps and output to a BNC connector. The sensor’s analog output is sent to an oscilloscope whose trigger out is connected to a Nucleo board for data acquisition. The Nucleo is in turn connected to a Raspberry Pi for totalizing and logging. It’s a complicated chain, but the sensor appears to work, even detecting alpha emissions from thoriated TIG electrodes, a feat we haven’t been able to replicate with our G-M tube counter.
Radioactivity stirs up a lot of anxiety, partially because ionizing radiation is undetectable by any of the senses we were born with. Anytime radiation makes the news, there is a surge of people worried about their exposure levels and a lack of quick and accurate answers. Doctors are flooded with calls, detection devices become scarce, and fraudsters swoop in to make a quick buck. Recognizing the need for a better way, researchers are devising methods to measure cumulative exposure experienced by commodity surface mount resistors.
Cumulative exposure is typically tracked by wearing a dosimeter a.k.a. “radiation badge”. It is standard operating procedure for people working with nuclear material to wear them. But in the aftermath of what researchers euphemistically call “a nuclear event” there will be an urgent need to determine exposure for a large number of people who were not wearing dosimeters. Fortunately, many people today do wear personal electronics full of components made with high purity ingredients to tightly controlled tolerances. The resistor is the simplest and most common part, and we can hack a dosimeter with them.
Lab experiments established that SMD resistors will reveal their history of radiation exposure under high heat. Not to the accuracy of established dosimetry techniques, but more than good enough to differentiate people who need immediate medical attention from those who need to be monitored and, hopefully, reassure people in neither of those categories. Today’s technique is a destructive test as it requires removing resistors from the device and heating them well above their maximum temperature, but research is still ongoing in this field of knowledge we hope we’ll never need.
Remember when a homemade cloud chamber was a science fair staple? We haven’t participated for decades, but it seemed like every year someone would put a hunk of dry ice in a fish tank, add a little alcohol, and with the lighting just right – which it never was in the gymnasium – you might be lucky enough to see a few contrails in the supersaturated vapor as the occasional stray bit of background radiation whizzed through the apparatus.
Done right, the classic cloud chamber is a great demonstration, but stocking enough dry ice to keep the fun going is a bit of a drag. That’s where this Peltier-cooled cloud chamber comes into its own. [mosivers] spares no expense at making a more permanent, turn-key cloud chamber, which is perched atop a laser-cut acrylic case. Inside that is an ATX power supply which runs a Peltier thermoelectric cooling module. Coupled with a CPU cooler, the TEC is able to drive the chamber temperature down to a chilly -42°C, with a strip of white LEDs providing the required side-lighting. The video below gives a tour of the machine and shows a few traces from a chunk of pitchblende; it’s all pretty tame until [mosivers] turns on his special modification – a high-voltage grid powered by a scrapped electronic fly swatter. That really kicks up the action, and even lets thoriated TIG welding electrodes be used as a decent source of alpha particles.