About Your Particle Accelerator

We are always hearing about the importance of the nuclear family, but how many of your friends have actually taken the plunge and involved themselves in this fascinating science? Despite the fact that we are all supposed to be living in the nuclear age, you will hardly ever hear anyone chatting about fast-breeders, fusion versus fission or radioactive decay rates while standing in the supermarket check-out queue or waiting for a bus!

Why not take the lead in your community and get all the family involved in today's technology? Every man and his dog has a home computer these days so an ideal way of getting one jump ahead of your fellows is to build yourself a real particle accelerator. It needn't cost a vast amount and could even be a stepping stone to bigger things.

Not that a particle accelerator is that small itself. It will certainly take up much of your home and garden, but will surely make you the envy of your neighbours. Most people think that nuclear physics is mainly about creating gigantic mushroom clouds and making vast tracts of land uninhabitable for hundreds of years. In fact there a lot of interesting things to do before you reach that stage.

Building your Particle Accelerator

A particle accelerator is essentially a very handy means of splitting atoms by accelerating sub-atomic particles up to truly amazing speeds and then letting them hit something. They usually consist of a large, circular tube filled with immensely powerful magnets and the main structure can be made by the average handyman by sticking lots of dustbins together with the bottoms cut out. You will need two or three hundred bins, but if your budget won't stretch this far you could economize by joining up old baked bean tins with superglue to make a smaller version.

The main drawback here is that you might not be able to fit big enough magnets inside, but although you probably will not be able to split atoms, you should manage to dent them pretty badly and that is almost as much fun. If you build a double track, members of your family can have sub-atomic particle races with each other. Incidentally, I should sound a word of warning at this stage. Particle accelerator magnets are very strong indeed and it is not advisable to operate such a device if you have a lot of fillings in your teeth. Going through a line of dustbins at something approaching light speed can seriously damage your health, to say nothing of the dustbins.

At some point in the circle you have made, you will need to build a switching point, so that once your particle has reached maximum velocity you can alter it's course to hit the target atom. The cheapest though not necessarily the most accurate way of doing this is to have one of the dustbins temporarily attached to the next. At the appropriate moment you can then rush over, pull the bin out of line and point it at something before the particle comes round again. Do remember that you will have to be very alert as it will be travelling in the region of 150,000 miles per second.

Here is a photo of what the finished accelerator should look like.

Once your accelerator is ready to run, switch it on and prepare to insert your sub-atomic particle. I should warn your neighbours at this point as the accelerator will probably suck up most of the power in your section of the National Grid and this will affect the little clocks in their video recorders and make them irritable.

Know your particles

The best particles to use are electrons or ions, and in the case of the latter must not be confused with steam irons as these are entirely different. Both varieties of particle are absolutely tiny so always use tweezers when handling them.

Here is a picture of a particle,
magnified 1,000,000 times.


Before inserting the particle you will need to create a vacuum inside the accelerator tube and this can be done quite easily by inserting the upholstery attachment of your vacuum cleaner. You will then be ready to pop in your particle and switch on. Don't expect anything too spectacular; atoms and particles are extremely small and there won't be much of a bang unless you have got something terribly wrong. Either way, there won't be much point in worrying.

Wait a few moments to make sure that the fission has occurred then have a look inside. If everything has worked as it should the atomic nucleus will have been split into little bits of things such as psi-mesons and so on. These should be carefully collected in a matchbox for further study later.

Do experiment a bit. Try accelerating lots of particles at once and seeing how many atoms you can hit at a time. Once you have gained sufficient experience in this field you may wish to go on to put your knowledge to good use and build a proper nuclear reactor. The fission principle is essentially the same but more complex and involves starting a chain reaction with hundreds of nuclei being bombarded at once. The advantages of constructing your own nuclear reactor are enormous and will allow you to start generating your own light and heat.

Your Own Nuclear Reactor!

Fix an old biscuit tin to the end of your accelerator as a reaction chamber and fill it with atoms. Once you fire the first particle into the tin all the atoms will begin colliding with each other and getting very hot. The heat can be used to drive a fan connected to some alternators salvaged from your local car breakers and then, Hey Presto, electricity. You will need to take some elementary precautions as nuclear fission can be a bit dangerous.

For a start you should insulate the reaction tin with lead sheathing. If sheets of this are beyond your means, glueing hundreds of pencils to the outside of the tin will be sufficient. Also, whenever working near the reaction chamber you should wear protective clothing (below). Failing this, wrap yourself in baking foil from head to toe and wear a diving mask. A more permanent solution would be to save all your old milk bottle tops and sew them to an old suit.

Safety aspects - Important Information

Becoming radioactive is no joke, I can tell you. You will know if you have been overexposed because you will start to glow in the dark and this can be most embarrassing. On the plus side it will make walking or cycling after dark much safer on busy roads.

I shouldn't need to remind you that nuclear generators are extremely powerful so do not attempt to connect domestic appliances direct to the power output. Failure to step down the current could lead to your stove going nova or your toast ending up in the attic.