cloud chamber

cloud chamber

cloud chamber, device used to detect elementary particles and other ionizing radiation. A cloud chamber consists essentially of a closed container filled with a supersaturated vapor, e.g., water in air. When ionizing radiation passes through the vapor, it leaves a trail of charged particles (ions) that serve as condensation centers for the vapor, which condenses around them. The path of the radiation is thus indicated by tracks of tiny liquid droplets in the supersaturated vapor. The cloud chamber was invented c.1900 by C. T. R. Wilson. In the type devised by him, which is often called the Wilson cloud chamber, air or another gas is saturated with water vapor and enclosed in a cylinder fitted with a transparent window at the top and a piston or other pressure-regulating device at the bottom. When the pressure in the chamber is suddenly reduced, e.g., by lowering the piston, the gas-vapor mixture is cooled, producing supersaturation. Cloud chambers of this design are sometimes called the pulsed type, since they do not maintain a continuous state of supersaturation of the vapor. A more recent design is the diffusion cloud chamber. In this device a large temperature difference is maintained between the top and bottom of the chamber, usually by cooling the bottom of the chamber with dry ice. The gas in the chamber, usually air, is saturated with a vapor, usually alcohol; the air-vapor mixture cools as it diffuses toward the cool bottom, becoming supersaturated. If the gas is kept saturated with a fresh supply of vapor, e.g., by an alcohol-soaked pad inside the top of the chamber, the operation of the chamber can be essentially continuous. One disadvantage of the cloud chamber is the relatively low density of the gas, which limits the number of interactions between ionizing radiation and molecules of the gas. For this reason physicists have developed other particle detectors, notably the bubble chamber and the spark chamber.

The cloud chamber, also known as the Wilson chamber, is used for detecting particles of ionizing radiation. In its most basic form, a cloud chamber is a sealed environment containing a supercooled, supersaturated water or alcohol vapour. When an alpha particle or beta particle interacts with the mixture, it ionises it. The resulting ions act as condensation nuclei, around which a mist will form (because the mixture is on the point of condensation). The high energies of alpha and beta particles mean that a trail is left, due to many ions being produced along the path of the charged particle. These tracks have distinctive shapes (for example, an alpha particle's track is broad and straight, while an electron's is thinner and shows more evidence of deflection). When a vertical magnetic field is applied, positively and negatively charged particles will curve in opposite directions. For more detailed track-shape information, see bubble chamber.


Charles Thomson Rees Wilson (1869-1959), a Scottish physicist, is credited with inventing the cloud chamber. Inspired by sightings of the Brocken spectre while working on the summit of Ben Nevis in 1894, he began to develop expansion chambers for studying cloud formation and optical phenomena in moist air. Very rapidly he discovered that ions could act as centers for water droplet formation in such chambers. He pursued the application of this discovery and perfected the first cloud chamber in 1911. In Wilson's original chamber the air inside the sealed device was saturated with water vapor, then a diaphragm is used to expand the air inside the chamber (adiabatic expansion). This cools the air and water vapor starts to condense. When an ionizing particle passes through the chamber, water vapor condenses on the resulting ions and the trail of the particle is visible in the vapor cloud. A diagram of Wilson's apparatus is given here Wilson, along with Arthur Compton, received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1927 for his work on the cloud chamber. This kind of chamber is also called a pulsed chamber, because the conditions for operation are not continuously maintained.

Other chambers

The diffusion cloud chamber was developed in 1936 by Alexander Langsdorf. This chamber differs from the expansion cloud chamber in that it is continuously sensitized to radiation, and in that the bottom must be cooled to a rather low temperature, generally as cold as or colder than dry ice. Alcohol vapor is also often used due to its different phase transition temperatures. Dry-ice-cooled cloud chambers are a common demonstration and hobbyist device; the most common fluid used in them is isopropyl alcohol, though methyl alcohol can be encountered as well. There are also water-cooled diffusion cloud chambers, using ethylene glycol.

The bubble chamber similarly reveals the tracks of subatomic particles, but as trails of bubbles in superheated liquid. Bubble chambers can be made physically larger than cloud chambers, and since they are filled with much denser material, they reveal the tracks of much more energetic particles. These factors rapidly made the bubble chamber the particle detector of choice, so that cloud chambers were effectively superseded in fundamental research by the start of the 1960s.


Das Gupta, N. N.; Ghosh S. K. "A Report on the Wilson Cloud Chamber and its Applications in Physics". Reviews of Modern Physics 18 225–365.

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