-- NigelWatson - 22 Sep 2010

The Cloud Chamber

A Cloud Chamber is a device used to detect ionizing particles and to determine their trajectories. It does not show the particles themselves, but where they have been, as particles form a condensation trail in the chamber which leaves a fine mist that we can see which tells us a particle's path through the chamber. Some pictures of the Birmingham fish tank cloud chamber are shown here.

[unnumbered] page of Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Containing Papers of a Mathematical and Physical Character, Vol. 87, No. 595, Sep. 19, 1912



How does it work?

The first cloud chamber

used air saturated with water in a glass chamber. The bottom of this chamber could be pulled down to increase the volume of the chamber, causing the gas within it to expand as well, and as such do work. However this change is adiabatic- involves no heat transfer. The first law of thermodynamics states energy is conserved and cannot be created or destroyed, so we know that the energy for this expansion has to have come from somewhere; in this case, the internal energy of the gas. The internal energy is related to the temperature of the molecules in the gas, so if the chamber expands the temperature drops. This brings the water vapour close to condensing, making it become supersaturated. If an ionising particle, such as alpha or beta radiation, passes through this vapour then the ions formed acts as points of condensation for the surrounding vapour, leading to the formation of visible clouds.

More modern cloud chambers work differently to the original apparatus, as they use alcohol instead of water and do not change the volume of the chamber but instead use dry ice to cool the base of the chamber. The alcohol is soaked in a tissue at the top of the chamber, which is much warmer than the chamber base; the alcohol vapours therefore fall to the base of the tank, where they reach a point of supersaturation. Ionising particles that pass through the vapour shows up in exactly the same way as with the original water detailed above.

The cloud tracks can be photographed for further observation to determine the nature of the particle that caused the trail; for example, frequent changes of direction suggest frequent interactions with gas molecules, which is normally shown by alpha particles (the most ionising form of radiation). An electric or magnetic field can be applied across the chamber, which will cause charged particles to curve. Positive and negative particles curve in different directions, making them distinguishable from each other.

C. T. R. Wilson, Proc. Roy. Soc. A, Vol. 87,595, pp.277,


Development of the Cloud Chamber

Wilson was interested in the formation of clouds, and in electrical and optical phenomena associated with clouds. He developed the chamber in 1894-5, as a way of making small clouds in the laboratory. His cloud chamber contained a saturated vapour, ready to condense into liquid droplets. He used it for a variety of investigations into the formation and disappearance of liquid droplets from saturated vapour.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, his fellow physicists were working on the task of identifying and describing the sub-atomic particles emitted by radioactive materials. Wilson realised in 1910 that his cloud chamber could contribute to this study. If an ionising particle passed through saturated vapour, the vapour would condense into droplets along the path of the particle, where ions provided nuclei for the condensation process.

Wilson’s original design was modified by Patrick Blackett, who included a spring-mounted diaphragm that could be moved up and down several times per second. Each compression-decompression cycle provided the right conditions for particle tracks to form. Given the time and patience required to identify new and interesting tracks, this was a useful way of speeding up research work.

Then in 1936 the American nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf came up with a variation on the cloud chamber, the diffusion chamber. It uses a cold source, usually dry ice, to cool the chamber from the bottom giving a temperature gradient, meaning that there is a region which is always supersaturated allowing particles to be detected continuously, rather than only immediately after a pressure reduction.

1894-5Charles T.R. Wilson invents the cloud chamber to make small clouds in the laboratory, due to his interest in their formation and the electrical and optical phenomena associated with them
1910Wilson realises that the cloud chamber could be used in the task of identifying and describing newly discovered sub-atomic particles emitted by radioactive materials
1924Patrick Blackett uses the cloud chamber to observe the transmutation of nitrogen into fluorine, which then disintegrated into oxygen
Blackett and Giuseppe Occhialini developed a system of Geiger counters which only took photgraphs when a cosmic ray entered the chambe. Blackett had also devised a way to speed up research work, by using a spring mounted diaphragm to quickly readjust the chamber back to the conditions required to observe a cloud trace/
Alexander Langsdorf modified the chamber to produce its modern variant, the diffusion chamber. Using dry ice to form a temperature gradient meant there was always a supersaturated region, so particles could be detected constantly

The Science Behind it All

In order to look at this we must first introduce a few equations: the first law of thermodynamics

This is in effect all down to conservation of energy and is often formalised as ΔQ= ΔU + ΔW

where Δ is the Greek letter delta symbolising a change of.

Q is the heat transferred into or out of the system. Heat transferred into is positive heat transferred out is negative

U is the internal energy of system.

W is work done on or by the system, work done by is positive work done on is negative.

We then know that work= force multiplied by the perpendicular distance W=F x d

In a gas P=F/A which can be re written as PA=F

P being the pressure

so pressure multiplied by area= the Force Where A is the cross sectional area of a cylinder etc.

So we now have:

W=PA x d

however we also know that if we multiply an area by a distance we get a volume so in one final step we can say that:


So if we get an increase in the volume then work is done by the gas. We can then also find that from the kinetic theory of gases that the total kinetic energy of an ideal gas is related to the absolute temperature of the gas, so the internal energy of the gas is related to the absolute temperature of the gas.

KE=3/2NkT where k is the Boltzmann constant and N the number of molecules.

So now our original first law of thermodynamics can be re-written as:

ΔQ = Δ3/2NkT +ΔPV

So since the chamber expands adiabatically there is no heat transfer, so ΔQ=0. However the volume has increased and so the system has done work, ΔW is positive, this means that to conserve energy the internal energy must be negative and of the same magnitude as such there must be a temperature drop- since U is related to T as shown above- and it is this that causes supersaturation within the chamber.

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Topic revision: r13 - 03 Jul 2012 - 13:18:45 - NigelWatson
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