Acrylic fractal art made by bombarding slabs of plastic in a particle accelerator

Todd Johnson's Shockfossils are "multimillion volt Lichtenberg figures in acrylic." He masks acrylic slabs with lead and then rents time on a commercial particle accelerator and the result are beautiful, fern-like fractals.

Shockfossils on deviantART


  1. Very cool indeed.  But the video left me with one question: what’s that big industrial electron beam used for when it’s not making art?

    1. Good question!  This facility produces crosslinked polymer products such as PEX tubing and some automotive and appliance parts.

  2. For over ~four decades medical physicists have been goofing around making these discharge patterns in acrylic using high energy electron beams from clinical linear accelerators (treatment machines). I particularly like the 3D effects seen in thick blocks of acrylic. However, I’m not sure I’d want a 200 pound slab of irradiated acrylic hanging on my wall as “art” since the plastic is liable to suddenly fracture along these very fault lines. Doug, Ph.D.

    1. Actually, the residual stresses go away pretty quickly – a friend of mine has one made in the early 90s that is quite stable. Provided you don’t go completely insane in how you charge it, there’s still plenty of solid material left.

      I’ve never heard of one just breaking under its own weight, but then again, there are very few Lichtenberg figures around that are that big – those sell for thousands of dollars…

        1. Inject some kind of dyed resin into the gaps, maybe? Although I doubt you’d be able to get it into all the fine details.

      1. Right, Jim. The pieces are quite stable even if dropped on the floor hard enough to chip a corner off. Crossed polarizers show little internal stress.

          Now I _have_ tried to do this with glass just for fun. Although it can be charged and a faint figure will form, it’s not reliably stable. Some last a long time, some crumble after a day or so, and some just explode when merely touched with the discharge tool.

    1. From the DeviantArt page: 
      As the charges leave the plastic, they gather into channels following fractal branching rules just like river deltas, plants, and capillaries.  Controlling the energy and placement of the beam determines the final shape and character of the resulting figure.

      1. For those of you who don’t already know Todd, he’s a physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, so if anyone would know where there’s commercial accelerator time to rent, he would!

  3. I don t know.  The technique is… convoluted and interesting,  but they have all the charm of a laminated business card.  and those cookie cutter pieces,  awful. 

    1. Maybe he’s talking about that commercial particle accelerator that’s sandwiched in between Embroideries-R-Us and the Copper Roofing King in the old industrial park.

  4. The Lightning Foundry Kickstarter project (previously covered here) also had those as a reward- that’s the reason I signed up for the $300 level.

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