For some students, the most enticing science project or weekend driveway science experiment is one that explodes or burns—a project with clear wow factor and just enough danger to make it exciting. If you live on the wild side of science and X-ray science hasn't made your radar yet, it's time to take a heavy-atoms look at what's possible and where your curiosity might take you.
What do you know about X-rays? Other than that X-ray is one of the two common words associated with the letter "x" (the other being "xylophone"), many of us know only the basics about X-ray technology. You know that you might need an X-ray when you have a bronchial illness or a broken bone, that your dentist routinely X-rays your teeth, and that too much exposure to X-rays can be dangerous. That you wear a protective garment at the dentist to limit exposure to X-rays, and that everyone else in the room leaves while X-rays are taken, is a subtle but clear reminder that X-rays are not to be taken lightly.
While X-rays are a form of radiation, and radiation can be dangerous, not all radiation is bad.
As a high school student, Kenneth Hess, founder of Science Buddies, was already asking big questions—and putting his curiosity to the test. For his ninth grade science fair project, he used his dentist's X-ray machine to test a DIY cloud chamber so that he could observe the trails of the radioactive particles.
While student chemists, physicists and engineers might experiment with an old circuit board, build an electrophoresis chamber, power a battery with fruit, build a light dimmer with a pencil, investigate the speed of light in a microwave, or carry out calculated experiments designed to burn, pop, or explode, investigating X-rays may seem a bit out of reach for your average high school science exploration.
But as Matthew Feddersen and Blake Marggraff, winners of the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and 2011 Science Buddies Summer Fellows, demonstrated, with the right precautions and the proper setup, advanced science students can safely and successfully pursue X-ray based research. Blake and Matthew have a history of exploring out-of-the-box science, their idea of weekend fun often taking form in finding the right science combination to create a safe but awesome explosion. Their questioning of principles and curiosity about chemical reactions ultimately evolved in a sophisticated year-long study of the application of X-rays as a method of creating inexpensive and more effective cancer treatment.
Using his experience building an X-ray machine with Blake as a foundation, Matthew helped develop a suite of new resources for Science Buddies, including a detailed blueprint for a DIY X-ray machine.
Exploring X-Ray Technology
The following X-ray and radiation materials are designed to help interested students learn more about radiation, build an at-home apparatus for investigation, and inspire initial research ideas that will put the homemade machine to use:
- An Introduction to Radiation & Radiation Safety: An absolute first stop for anyone considering working with X-rays, this primer explains the basics of radiation and walks through critical safety considerations. Familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum? Know the difference between non-ionizing radiation and ionizing radiation? Know the benefits and potential uses of ionizing radiation as well as the risks? How much radiation exposure is considered safe? What does Tungsten have to do with X-rays? How does an X-ray machine work?
- Matthew Feddersen & Blake Marggraff's ISEF Experiments with X-rays: A firsthand account of Matthew and Blake's history of science exploration. Their initial guiding premise (the bigger the explosion the better) led them to countless weekend projects and, eventually, to top honors at the Intel ISEF.
- How to Build an X-ray Machine: Building your own X-ray machine will let you perform a variety of experiments. This guide, based on the homemade machine Matthew and Blake built as high school seniors, offers all you need to get started planning your machine, buying materials, and then constructing, testing, and troubleshooting your DIY radiation equipment.
- Zapping Yeast with X-rays*: This abbreviated project idea offers students a launch point for developing a science project that explores the interaction between X-rays and baker's yeast, a common microorganism.
- Developing Images with X-rays*: This abbreviated project idea offers suggested paths of exploration for students interested in taking and developing X-rays that are high resolution and offer strong contrast. Students can also explore questions related to how easily X-ray radiation passes through certain types of materials.