7D30.60 Diffusion Cloud Chamber


Particle detectors, cosmic rays, radioactivity, condensation


The cloud chamber detects secondary cosmic rays and radioactive decays by making alcohol clouds along the particle paths through the chamber. Particles ionize alcohol molecules as they pass through saturated alcohol gas, making the polar isopropanol molecules condense and form clouds around the ions.

This demo does not actually belong to SFU Physics. It is property of the Andreoiu Lab in Chemistry. We should give them at least a week of notice that we want to borrow it, and even then, we are not guaranteed to get it.



  • [1] [Andreoiu lab] Cloud chamber
  • [1] [Andreoiu lab] Fluorescent lamp
  • [1] [Andreoiu lab] High-voltage supply (optional)
  • [1] Thorium source
  • [1] Bottle of isopropanol
  • [1] Box of dry ice
  • [1] Rubber bung
  • [1] Hammer
  • [1] Spoon

Safety Equipment

  • [1] Safety glasses
  • [2] Safety glove

Classroom Assembly

  1. Place the cloud chamber and lamp so the chamber can be illuminated.
  2. Block the hole in the chamber with the rubber bung.
  3. Remove the glass top and soak the chamber's sponges in isopropanol.
  4. Place the thorium source in the chamber.
  5. Replace the glass top.
  6. Use the handles to lift the main part of the chamber and uncover the base.
  7. Put on the gloves and safety glasses.
  8. Place an even layer of dry ice on top of the base using the gloves and/or the spoon. Hammer the dry ice in the box to loosen it up, if required. The layer should be at least 2 cm thick.
  9. Place the main part of the chamber onto the dry ice.
  10. Turn on the lamp. The chamber will take a few minutes to cool down enough.
  11. Level the chamber, if you can. This prevents the particle tracks from drifting too much.

Important Notes

  • Dry ice can cause severe burns and blindness. It can also cause deadly CO2 poisoning in confined or poorly ventilated spaces. Use with caution.
  • The dry ice layer needs to be fairly even for the chamber to work.
  • Use caution when using the thorium source. Wash hands after handling.


There is not really much to do once the demo is set up. You just need to talk about the physics of the cloud chamber and what it detects. There is a lot you can talk about, though.

  • Particle physics and relativity
    You can try to identify the specific particles from the shapes of the tracks, though it can be very difficult. Electrons, positrons, and muons tend to make thin tracks,  though this may be hard to see sometimes because the thin tracks can thicken quickly as they form. Electrons and positrons should have a greater tendency to bounce around since they are low-mass, but this isn't always seen. The muons actually have to be travelling at relativistic speeds to reach the cloud chamber because without time dilation, they don't last long enough.
    Alpha particles are high-mass and make straight, thick tracks. Alphas come from radon gas emitted by radioactive minerals in the ground, largely originally uranium. The thorium source is from an old lantern mantle used to increase the brightness of camping lanterns. The thorium-232 in there is an alpha emitter, but there are alpha and beta emitters down the decay chain.
  • Cosmic rays and radiation
    High-energy particles (often protons) from the sun and distant astromical objects (e.g. stars, black holes) are primary cosmic rays. When they hit Earth's atmosphere, they create a shower of particles called secondary cosmic rays. These secondary particles (such as electrons, positrons, and muons) can be detected by the cloud chamber. The cosmic ray electrons tend to follow Earth's magnetic field to the poles, where they excite nitrogen and oxygen in the air to make the auroras.
  • Particle detector history
    The cloud chamber and its descendents are integral to at least 6 Nobel Prizes in physics:
    1927: Charles Thomson Rees Wilson for the invention of the cloud chamber
    1936: Carl David Anderson for discovering the positron using the cloud chamber
    1948: Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett for improvements to the cloud chamber method and discoveries in nuclear physics and cosmic radiation
    1960: Donald Arthur Glaser for the invention of the bubble chamber
    1968: Luis Walter Alvarez for development of the hydrogen bubble chamber and subsequent discovery of many resonance states (short-lived particles)
    1992: Georges Charpak for development of particle detectors, particularly the multiwire proportional chamber


Additional Resources


  • PIRA 7D30.60
  • Wilson, the cloud chamber's inventor, was originally just interested in clouds, but his chamber ended up being the first great particle detector. His Nobel lecture is a history of the invention.


  • Don't attempt this at home!

Last revised

  • 2020


  • Dry ice is available in the dry ice room in Chemistry. Deliveries typically happen in the mornings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. When using the dry ice grinder in the room, use the finest setting.
  • 1/4 of a block of dry ice lasts 1-2 hours. The first hour is great, but the second hour is mediocre.
  • 1/2 a block lasts about 4 hours.
  • If running the cloud chamber for about 4 hours the next day, grind up 1/2 to 3/4 of a block of dry ice and place in a bath of liquid nitrogen overnight. The liquid nitrogen likely makes the dry ice stick together by freezing water and subliming CO2, so if using this method, be ready to loosen up the dry ice with a hammer. Doing so thoroughly could take up to 20 minutes.
  • Isopropanol seems to give more tracks and more visible tracks than ethanol.

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If you have any questions about the demos or notes you would like to add to this page, contact Ricky Chu at ricky_chu AT sfu DOT ca.