How To: Build a radiation detector out of a digital camera

Obviously, this is probably not the most accurate or sensitive way to measure radiation. It's also showing you relative increases or decreases, not exact numbers. Nevertheless, this hack, worked out by Andrew Lathrop, is pretty damn cool.

Via PopPhoto and Leisa Fearing.


  1. I know Andy — he is as brilliant as he is wonderful. I think i’m going to have to add that little rig to my backpack. Thanks, Andy!

  2. I believe it only works for beta radiation. which might not be the most common or deadly sort in one’s particular nuclear disaster. still, it’s an impressive hack.

    1. I think the betas get sucked up in the heavy foil; IIRC a little over 10% of K40 radiation (the dominant term in bananas/salt substitute) is in the form of low energy gammas, which would blast through the foil rather well. That kind of material is most often used to measure photons, not betas.

  3. @Rob – United Nuclear has several ready-made optical scintillation detectors for < $50. You can either just hold them to your eye or tape them to the front of a camera.

  4. To get real time reads, I bet you could put the cam on video mode and turn the contrast all the way up on the video display window on the laptop the thing is connected to.

  5. I find it funny that he was talking about borosilicate glassware while obvious having sodalime baking dishes.

    Also this isn’t much of a “hack”, this is more did you know you can measure radiation through scintillation? This has been the method since the dawn of science (well film instead of digital obviously)

    1. Original Pyrex kitchenware is borosilicate glass, although I have heard that at least in the US, Pyrex is now heat-tempered soda-lime. You can still get borosilicate kitchenware if you look for it.

      1. You can tell it is sodalime by the color, green = soda lime and blue = borosilicate, generally. Well that is the easiest way at least. As those were very green there isn’t much doubt.

        Oh and Pyrex swears up and down that they haven’t made home cookware with borosilicate for 60 years. Though everyone kind of says they are disembling. (Indeed at one point they swore up and down that the formula had never changed, though that was likely lack of history knowledge more than anything). In all honesty I think a lot of the problem is that during the transition there was some pieces that got out under tempered, rather than borosilicate vs. sodalime. Undertempered glass will break act normal but shatter if you look at it wrong(and not in a nice way).

    2. It’s a good hack. I know a (large) number of people who’ve worked with that stuff for decades, and they’re all, to a person, pretty impressed. It’s elegant, and it’s simple, It’s a very good hack.

      If you invalidate something as a hack by virtue of its using long-known principles, we’re probably using disjoint definitions of hack.

  6. Wow, this brought up a memory of something I had completely forgotten. I actually own one piece of this material. I visited some labs of the CEA (French Atomic Energy Commission) when I was a child and a scientist gave it to me. They used those in order build particle detectors. They had a bunch of them connected to optical fibers in order to gather and measure emitted light. But they didn’t use them with radiation detection in mind. If I remember correctly, radiation was just the consequence of something else they wanted to measure (like a neutrino going through some material).

    Must be somewhere in my parents’ house.

    Along with a small rectangular plate with very thin gold plating that was also used in particle science… though I can’t remember how.

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