To See Within: Making Medical X-rays

I was a bit of a lost soul after high school.  I dabbled with electrical engineering for a semester but decided that it wasn’t for me – what I wouldn’t give for a do-over on that one. In my search for a way to make money, I stumbled upon radiologic technology – learning how to take X-rays. I figured it was a good way to combine my interests in medicine, electronics, and photography, so after a two-year course of study I got my Associates Degree, passed my boards, and earned the right to put “R.T.(R) (ARRT)” after my name.

That was about as far as that career went. There are certain realities of being in the health care business, and chief among them is that you really have to like dealing with the patients. I found that I liked the technology much more than the people, so I quickly moved on to bigger and better things. But the love of the technology never went away, so I thought I’d take a look at exactly what it takes to produce medical X-rays, and see how it’s changed from my time in the Radiology Department.

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Portable, DIY Radiography

[Matt] has a background in radiation, electronics, and physics, which means building a device to generate X-rays was only a matter of time. It’s something not everyone should attempt, and [Matt] discourages anyone from attempting anything like this, but if you’re looking for a project with a ‘because it’s there’ flair to it, building your own X-ray machine can be a fun and rewarding project.

Despite being scary and mysterious, X-rays are a rather old technology that date back to some of the first purposeful experiments in electronics. Most X-ray devices today are built around the same parts they were 100 years ago, namely, a Coolidge tube. Apply a high enough voltage to the Coolidge tube and electrons whizz from cathode to anode, and slam into a heavy metal target. This produces Bremsstrahlung radiation – breakingbraking X-rays – that can be directed to film or an X-ray intensifier screen that fluoresces in visible light when being struck by X-rays.

Aside from a cheap Coolidge tube, [Matt] constructed the rest of his X-ray generator with a voltage multiplier made out of sufficiently derated Chinese caps, a flyback transformer, and a transformer driver originally made for induction heating applications. The electronics were installed in a Tupperware container and insulated with mineral oil.

Being able to generate X-rays is one thing, viewing them is another matter entirely. For this, [Matt] is using an old X-ray intensifier screen from the 60s or 70s. This screen fluoresces blue, not the easiest color to photograph in low-light settings, but enough to capture images of the inside of tools sitting around his workbench. Following in the footsteps of [Roentgen], [Matt] also took an X-ray image of his hand. This is something he doesn’t recommend, and something he won’t do again, but it is a very cool example of what you can do with sufficient knowledge and respect for what can kill you.