Originally published on OpenFile Montreal on March 21, 2012
Concordia students build unique electron accelerator
Six undergraduate students at Concordia have built what they say is Montreal’s first electron accelerator – despite funding shortfalls, the threat of radiation and the sheer complexity of the project.
“Our friends and classmates are amazed that we pulled it off,” said team leader Jad Saleh, 22.
Strapped to a table in a lab in the basement of Concordia’s Engineering building, the electron gun takes electricity from a regular wall outlet and increases the voltage, sending electrons into a vacuum system. The students then introduce helium and bend the beam of electrons with a self-made electromagnet and collect them in a beaker.
The team began testing the electron gun last Friday.
The contraption is a more sophisticated version of the electron beams found inside old televisions that the team used as guides. “It exists in CRT televisions and monitors so we took one apart and looked at how it worked,” said Saleh. Although the televisions provided a basis for the mechanics of the project, the design was nowhere near what the students needed to create to support the high voltage needed. “The challenge is the 1950’s monitors only go to 15,000 volts and we wanted to go to 100,000. Once you get there you have to have a completely different design,” he said
Rolf Wuthrich, an associate professor in the department of Mechanical Engineering is both the team’s supervisor and beneficiary. The electron gun will be used for research in his Concordia lab. “Our research program is centred on modelling, engineering and technical use of gas evolving electrodes,” he said. “The students contacted me about a possible project and we had a need for this to advance my research.”
The project started last July with the research phase. The team was determined to learn all the skills required to build the accelerator themselves including the electrical wiring, physics theory and vacuum construction. They began actually assembling the gun in December 2011.
The students needed to take precautions before they begin build because the university requires safety and training to be the same in the classroom as it would be in the workplace. “We can’t just be cowboys in the workplace so there are rules and trainings (the students) have to follow,” said Robin Drew, the Dean of Engineering. Because an electron gun creates radiation, the team surrounded it with a steel frame and made their own Geiger counter to measure the radiation output.
Another reason the project is so impressive is because the team raised nearly $25,000 through sponsors like TRIUMF, Concordia’s Sustainability Action Fund, and the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department.
Marcello Pavan is TRIUMF’s outreach co-ordinator and says the students were among about five projects approved this year. “It’s very prestigious. If (the students) are attempting to do something very complicated and we don’t think they can do it we won’t fund it,” Pavan said
“For undergrads this budget is groundbreaking. Usually people spend about $750. This one part alone cost around $1,400,” said Saleh patting the steel vacuum cylinder.
Professor Wuthrich says he thinks the particle accelerator will become one of the “showcase projects for our department.”
Dean Drew says the university is planning on showcasing the project to attract prospective students to Concordia. The team will also present their project at the Canadian Undergraduate Technology Conference in Toronto on April 28 and 29 – another first for Concordia University.