Cloud Chamber – Principle of Operation

Alpha Particle - Cloud Chamber
Alpha particles and electrons (deflected by a magnetic field) from a thorium rod in a cloud chamber.

Cloud chambers, also known as Wilson cloud chambers, are particle detectors, that were essential devices in early nuclear and particle physics research. Cloud chambers, one of the most simple instruments to study elementary particles, have been substituted by more modern detectors in actual research, but they still remain very interesting pedagogical apparatus.

Cloud Chamber – Principle of Operation

The fundamental principle behind them is the supersaturation of a vapor substance, a state in which the air, or any other gas, contains more vapour of that substance than it can hold in a stable equilibrium. An energetic charged particle (for example, an alpha or beta particle) interacts with the vapor mixture and creates a track of ions, which under supersaturation conditions act as condensation nuclei around which a mist-like trail of small droplets form if the gas mixture is at the point of condensation.

Diagram - cloud chamber
A diffusion-type cloud chamber. Alcohol (typically isopropanol) is evaporated by a heater in a duct in the upper part of the chamber. Cooling vapor descends to the black refrigerated plate, where it condenses. Due to the temperature gradient a layer of supersaturated vapor is formed above the bottom plate. In this region, radiation particles induce condensation and create cloud tracks. Source: License: CC BY-SA 4.0

These droplets are visible as a “cloud” track that persist for several seconds while the droplets fall through the vapor. The condensation of the vapour on these nuclei allows visual identification of the trajectories of the particles, leading to a straightforward study of their properties. In Wilson’s original chamber the air inside the sealed device was saturated with water vapor, then a diaphragm was used to expand the air inside the chamber (adiabatic expansion), cooling the air and starting to condense water vapor. Hence the name expansion cloud chamber is used. The first antiparticle, the positron, the muon, and the first strange particle, the kaon, were also first identified using cloud chamber.


Radiation Protection:

  1. Knoll, Glenn F., Radiation Detection and Measurement 4th Edition, Wiley, 8/2010. ISBN-13: 978-0470131480.
  2. Stabin, Michael G., Radiation Protection and Dosimetry: An Introduction to Health Physics, Springer, 10/2010. ISBN-13: 978-1441923912.
  3. Martin, James E., Physics for Radiation Protection 3rd Edition, Wiley-VCH, 4/2013. ISBN-13: 978-3527411764.
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, Instrumantation and Control. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 2 of 2. June 1992.

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

See above:

Cloud Chamber