Developing Images with X-rays *

Areas of Science Human Biology & Health
Time Required Long (2-4 weeks)
Prerequisites Basic understanding of radiation and making pictures using film.
Material Availability See How to Build an X-ray Machine for a detailed list of materials that will need to be ordered.
Cost Very High (over $150)
Safety See Introduction to Radiation and Radiation Safety for safety information.
*Note: This is an abbreviated Project Idea, without notes to start your background research, a specific list of materials, or a procedure for how to do the experiment. You can identify abbreviated Project Ideas by the asterisk at the end of the title. If you want a Project Idea with full instructions, please pick one without an asterisk.


You have probably had X-rays taken at the dentist's or doctor's office, but do you know how the X-ray images are made? Images made using X-rays, also called radiographs, are considered to be relatively safe to take, even though they are made using a small amount of radiation, specifically electromagnetic radiation. Radiation is energy that travels through space as either waves or high speed particles. Watch this video to learn more about electromagnetic radiation and X-rays.

Watch this video which gives an introduction to light and electromagnetic radiation (Khan Academy).

X-rays can travel through materials that light cannot because X-rays have more energy than light-rays. This is why X-rays can be used to take images of the inside of a person's body, such as cavities inside teeth or broken bones. The X-rays that travel through the person's body are picked up by film on the opposite side. X-rays are used to image many other things outside of the medical realm. For example, X-ray images are taken to examine the interiors of car parts before they are assembled, to examine luggage at the airport for potentially dangerous objects, or even to view the inside of ancient Egyptian mummies without needing to dissect them.

What conditions are needed to take the most crisp X-ray images? You can build your own X-ray machine to investigate what is needed to take X-ray images with the highest resolution or sharpness and ideal contrast. You can read the Science Buddies Project Idea How to Build an X-ray Machine and the accompanying Introduction to Radiation & Radiation Safety to learn how you can safely make a homemade X-ray machine. What factors affect the quality of an X-ray image? What type of X-ray film works best? What radiation dose is ideal for taking images? Never use the X-ray machine on living organisms, such as people, pets, or other animals. Instead, you can try using the X-ray machine to image other things, such as a whole, dead, fresh fish from a fish market. What conditions are needed to be able to very clearly see the fish's bones?

You can try taking X-ray images of other objects too, such as clean, dead animal bones, fruit, or wood. What do they look like when imaged? Be sure to keep all the other conditions the same when you X-ray different objects so that any differences in the images you see are due to the objects, and not to a setting on the X-ray machine or the type of film you use. Based on the images you take, which materials allow X-rays to pass through them the easiest, and which materials are harder for X-rays to pass through?

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Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies

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Last edit date: 2018-05-09


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