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Gadget Freak Case #219: Watching the Alpha Sparks Fly
7/6/2012

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John Iovine's homemade alpha particle spark detector uses a thin tungsten ground wire and a plate charged to about 8,000 volts.
John Iovine's homemade alpha particle spark detector uses a thin tungsten ground wire and a plate charged to about 8,000 volts.

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mrdon
User Rank
Gold
Re: Great Demo
mrdon   7/21/2012 6:57:19 PM
NO RATINGS
Great project by John who is masterful in High Voltage Electronics. Gadget Freak projects are excellent teaching materials for all levels of science and engineering classes and student. Keep up the great work Design News staff.

armorris
User Rank
Platinum
Re: Sparks or sparklers?
armorris   7/10/2012 9:06:14 PM
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You do not need a light sensor to electronically detect the sparks. Do what they do in a Geiger counter. Connect a capacitor from the ballast resistor (the metal plate in this case) to a small one-transistor amplifier. Each spark would would produce a pulse from the transistor that could be counted by a microcontroller or other counter circuit. There would not be two sparks simultaneously. Once a spark starts, the voltage is too low for another to begin. If two particles hit at EXACTLY the same time, the one with the most energy would prevail IMO. It should therefore, be an accurate count of the number of sparks.

I would move the ballast resistor and the capacitor to the grounded side of the HV power supply, however. Less stress on the coupling capacitor and the connected transistor.

j-allen
User Rank
Gold
Re: Sparks or sparklers?
j-allen   7/10/2012 5:31:22 PM
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Al;ha detection useless?  Unless you consider Ernest Rutherford's historical Experimenmt that led to our modern nuclear atomic theory.  This was based on the production and detection of alpha particles.  Alpha detection through ionization and sparks has been insespensible throughout the development of modern atomic and particle physics.  Please. Mr shjacks, do your homework before picking up your pen. 

Fred McGalliard
User Rank
Silver
Re: Great Demo
Fred McGalliard   7/10/2012 1:10:31 PM
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Hi. This was great. Very Nostalgic for me. I haven't seen a spark chamber at work since the 1960s worlds fair in Seattle.

Of value? Well, that depends on whether or not you do particle physics. I can see I will have to build one to impress my 4 year old grand daughter. Just have to figure out the safety protocols for little fingers and 8KV, eh.

westfw
User Rank
Iron
Re: Great Demo
westfw   7/10/2012 1:57:35 AM
You know someone has re-spun the classic cloud chamber to use Peltier coolers instead of dry ice:  http://www.nothinglabs.com/cloudchamber/

This spark detector design is different from the Willis design, particularly in the size of the ballast resistor (500 ohms vs "several megohms"); and explanations for the changes?

And where does the HV supply module come from?

 

Rob Spiegel
User Rank
Blogger
Re: Great Demo
Rob Spiegel   7/9/2012 5:36:29 PM
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Good thinking, MrBill. All of these Gadget Freak submissions are good teaching tools. Many of them are even submitted by students. We've had a bunch submitted by college-level engineering student teams. Recently we had a submission by a 15 year old.

Island_Al
User Rank
Gold
Re: Sparks or sparklers?
Island_Al   7/9/2012 4:07:22 PM
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@CLMcDade

Dead on that the term "useless" is inappropriate in this forum. While watching the video I was thinking about the possibility of adding a light sensor and micro to act as an event recorder. I have piles of what others would consider useless devices, but I learned from each project.  In my life TV and sports watching are useless, but I would not wish to stop anyone from doing so. I too want to thank John for taking the time for his contribution in both hardware and the video production.

 

tekochip
User Rank
Platinum
Re: Great Demo
tekochip   7/9/2012 11:26:32 AM
NO RATINGS
I agree, what an excellent demo.  You've got sights and sounds that can easily be perceived even in an Internet video.  Really nice job.

CLMcDade
User Rank
Gold
Re: Sparks or sparklers?
CLMcDade   7/9/2012 10:57:04 AM
"Useless" is a relative word and is very inappropriate for this forum.  Establishing the uselessness of a demonstration, experiment or idea is impossible - if the demonstration inspires just one person to build off of it somehow, it is not useless.

In a related story, apparently some in Pakistan don't think finding the "God particle" is all that amazing or important.  It is a very useless endeavor in their minds.  Heck,some members of our own Congress think that scientific data is useless and that science has no role in public policy. 

So bravo to John Iovine for taking the time to investigate and build a device that addressed his curiosity.

MrBill45140
User Rank
Iron
Great Demo
MrBill45140   7/9/2012 10:56:50 AM
NO RATINGS
I teach science to junior high homeschoolers.

They love sparks and noise and yes a little danger.  This project is a great way to introduce the alpha partical.  Inserting paper between the alpha source and the detector would be a good demonstration of the size of the alpha.

While a cloud chamber is certainly a good demonstration tool, its use is more difficult because dry ice is required.  In addition, cloud chamber has a limited field of view and difficult to see at a distance.  Using the "spark detector", in a darkened room, the entire class could see the effect.

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