DIY Electron Accelerator: A Cathode Ray Tube in a Wine Bottle

FeaturedContest Winner
Picture of DIY Electron Accelerator: A Cathode Ray Tube in a Wine Bottle
Learn how to build your own subatomic particle accelerator in a weekend! This simple project will allow you to investigate a variety of intriguing effects including magnetic deflection of an electron beam, Crookes dark space, plasma striations in a gas discharge tube, and many others. It can easily be used for a high school physics or science fair project and is compact enough to be demonstrated virtually anywhere.

You could be accelerating electrons to non-relativistic velocities after a trip to Home Depot and a visit to your local AC repair store and neon sign shop! Best of all, no advanced electrical or mechanical knowledge or tools are required.

Judges, see step 12 for contest entry details.

Here's some video evidence:

Thanks for all the support, guys! This project was featured on Hackaday, Slashgear, Engadget, Gizmodo, Gadgetblog, Tecmundo, Matuk, Zedomax DIY, and Make, as well as in the weekly newsletter and multiple times on our own front page!

Please don't forget to rate/vote!

Remove these adsRemove these ads by Signing Up

Step 1: Design/Theory

Picture of Design/Theory
As complex as the idea of a particle accelerator might seem, it's actually strikingly simple to implement. The design we will be using was first created in the late 19th century by J.J. Thomson and subsequently used to make several important discoveries about the fundamental nature of the atom and the electron. Later, in the early 20th century, Cockroft and Walton (yup, the same hooligans responsible for the voltage multiplier) used a similar design to build the first true electrostatic linear accelerator, or "static linac" for short. Nowadays, advanced versions of this type of accelerator are commonly used for radiotherapy and ion implantation.

Essentially, our cathode ray tube is just two electrodes in a vacuum chamber with a high voltage applied between them. When enough of the air in the chamber has been removed, electrons will freely accelerate from the negative electrode (cathode) towards the positive electrode (anode). However, instead of impacting the anode and returning to the power supply, some electrons will fly right past it and keep going until they hit a glass wall.

Some interesting effects that can be observed at this stage are sputtering and magnetic deflection.


If the acceleration potential is high enough, then some electrons striking the anode will have enough energy to knock metal ions right off the electrode. These ions will be deposited on the walls of the chamber near the anode and will create a silvery band somewhat reminiscent of the "getter" inside of an old vacuum tube.

Magnetic Deflection:

In physics, we all learned the Lorentz force law ( F = q[E + v x B] ), or the force on a point charge due to electromagnetic fields. In this context, it tells us that electrons will be accelerated from the cathode to the anode due E, the electrostatic field created by the high voltage power supply and that those electrons will also be accelerated by another field, B, in a manner that is dependent on the velocity, v, of those electrons. Since the velocity vectors of the electrons will be pointing roughly from the cathode to the the anode without an external magnetic field, we can use this to find out what effect a magnetic field will have if we introduce one.

Let's say we bring a magnet close to the tube while it's energized and we align it so that its field is roughly normal to the surface of the vacuum chamber. If we compute qv x B, we will find that the force due to the magnetic field is perpendicular to the paths of the electrons and to the magnetic field (by the definition of a cross product). In other words, the magnet curves the paths of the electrons and this effect is amplified by the duration that the electrons spend in the field. This effect can easily be observed inside of our cathode ray tube if a magnet is present nearby.

I've included a diagram of the mechanical construction of the accelerator to give a rough idea of how everything will work.
1-40 of 120Next »
Pyrophoric3 years ago
When one takes a doorknob to accelerate particles it's... glorious.
kelseymh3 years ago
This is outstanding. One of the best at-home particle physics projects I've seen on I'bles (neither the cyclotron nor the fusion reactor have writeups :-).

Thanks especially for including the (non-relativistic) physics background!

ok, this is not funny anymore. If my girlfriend finds I am building a subatomic particle accelerator in my room, I will need to move to a hotel.

The BlondeS1 month ago

Hi. I am attempting to do a project on voltage and electron speed for my 8th grade science project, and this instructable has been very helpful, but the only issue I've had with producing all of the materials for the project was when I attempted to find a relatively affordable power supply. Most have been running upwards of 600 dollars and that is simply not feasible. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you!

Xellers (author)  The BlondeS1 month ago
You're probably looking at something that's a well-regulated switching supply for professional lab use. You can get away with a kill-a-watt, variac, and neon sign transformer + rectifier and filter, which shouldn't be more than $100 total with some careful eBaying.

Thanks! I really do appriciate you taking the time to post this instructable, and replying to questions. My Sci-Fair sponser wanted me to do something daring. Looks like I've found it in this project.

physics man 13 months ago

Can someone please answer my question(it is the #4 down).

physics man 13 months ago

for my science fair apparently you need a hypothesis and experiment ;do you know any that I would be able to do.

P.S I all ready made the electron accelerator.

LukeJ3 months ago

Hi, I just made this particle accelerator and I was confused on what I was seeing. I was using a copper anode and the test started just like you showed. I had a non-fixed 18 kv power supply and 60 cm of vacuum. There was a constant purple stream touching the anode with about an inch of crooke's effect. After about 45 seconds the stream turned white like it usually does when the bottle gets hot and the contaminent is killed. Then, all of the sudden there was a huge discharge. The stream came down in a tornado-like fation then went back up and there was just a swirling white tornado touching the side with 3 inches of crooke's effect. There were a few electric lighting- like strikes at the end of the anode before it repeated the process. I have a video below. Please let me know your thoughts.

Xellers (author)  LukeJ3 months ago
Very nice job!

Unfortunately, I don't have any background in plasma physics, so I can't say what's causing the effects you're seeing. It does appear that you are getting a better vacuum than I did, though.

One thing to be careful about here is the production of x-rays that can penetrate the glass vessel. With less than 10kV to 15kV of accelerating potential, the x-rays are stopped by the glass, but above that they can start making it through. Ideally, you would want to test for this with a Geiger counter, but if you don't have access to one, you can just lower the potential somewhat and stay back and operate everything remotely to keep your exposure as low as possible. I'd also keep a sheet of acrylic or other transparent plastic between you and the tube, as it is at risk of imploding.

If you have the materials to make another tube, try extracting some phosphors from the CRT screen (look up how to do this safely), then mix them with water, pour it into the tube, and let it dry out at the bottom. This way, you'll be able to see where the electron beam strikes the bottom of the tube (I suspect it will be everywhere, since the beam is not focused). Then, you can experiment with other electron gun designs and deflect the beam with a magnet.

Good luck, have fun, and stay safe!
LukeJ Xellers3 months ago
Thanks for the feedback. I'm going to implement your suggestions.
PabloB14 months ago

Its 5 pascals enough vacuum???

This is a very good instructable.

One question though. Any problems with implosion of the wine bottle while you were experimenting?

fmarquis made it!4 months ago

Cool and easy build!

I used one of those new plastic cork. I drilled a hole, used a barbed connector and a copious amount of epoxy.

Of note, the bottle was still containing a few drops of water and it refused to work until the vacuum pump had forced all the water to evaporate.

Over time, I've seen many hues of blue, red, orange...

The power comes from a simple flyback transformer driven by 12v and a 555 oscillator.

2014-11-09 16.00.14.jpg2014-11-09 17.23.24.jpg
7C36 months ago

Could this be powered with a van de graaff generator? I'm new to doing these types of projects and am thinking this might be a safer option (thinking about amps).

Ninjakaib3 years ago
You should have got your vacuum pump from here: It was only about 160 dollars. Also, how much did the neon sign transformer cost you. I got my wine bottle for free.

hi ninja .. your link give me error

so can you give another link

i got one of the same rating for $15 plus $18 shipping, the trick is to find a used non-GFI unit on ebay that is still guarunteed working,and buy from a top rated seller.
(referring to the Neon Sign Transformer)
nak10 months ago

Very cool :)

I ran across this crowdfunding platform a while back:

It might be useful? I think I saw some other more science oriented crowd funding sites elsewhere too.

EmilyBug421 year ago

May I please have a list of materials? I am aspiring particle physicist and would like to do this.

Thank you!

I would just like to know how far you've gotten with your open-source accelerator.
You should try to focus the beam with an electromagnet :)
jebersole1 year ago
Would it be possible to attach the anode to the bottom of the bottle?
egarcia151 year ago
Can I use copper for the anode?
That is intriguing - thanks, Xellers!
jcahill22 years ago
How could I do this project using different variables?
Could you use fluorescent highlighters for different color ray tubes instead of the phosphors from a fluorescent tube?
does this not produce large amounts of x-rays?
Xellers (author)  makincoolstuff3 years ago
Nope - they don't have enough energy to penetrate the chamber with the acceleration voltage I'm using. Your concern is addressed in the safety step.
oh yeh, thats stupid of me. so is prolonged exposure to soft x-rays dangerous? and is using a fridge pump for vacuum and 30kv+ dangerous?
Xellers (author)  makincoolstuff3 years ago
Prolonged exposure to any type of x-ray radiation is dangerous, but this produces very little and should not be operated for long periods of time. You won't be able to get 30kV of acceleration potential with only a fridge pump.
I wasn't able to detect any x-rays whatsoever coming off of my tube. I guess I was using a little lower voltage (a 6kv NST). Either way there is either no or negligible amounts of radiation coming off of this. I even tried reversing the polarity so the metal vacuum port was being bombarded with electrons (this is basically how ex-ray tubes work) and still no radiation was detected. For good measure I measured background for 5 min. and then turned the tube on and measured another 5 min. for each test. In no cases was the latter measurement higher than the former by a statistically significant amount (in fact a couple times it was lower).
ok, thanks for replying, so does that mean i wont be able to do this experiment with a fridge pump?
Xellers (author)  makincoolstuff3 years ago
You can certainly try, but I doubt it - you can definitely make a simple gas discharge tube, but I don't think it will full enough vacuum for good cathode rays.
what pressure is the running at? because i have seen videos of people getting fridge pumps to works at 20millibar (10 torr)
Use an air compressor in reverse!? I know that works good.
a fridge pump is an air compressor!
I mean one of those air compressors you use for air powered tools and all, there quite different in design. I am not sure which one works the best for drawing vacums.
kleomenid2 years ago
Sorry to sound like a bit of an airhead, but what is the function of the diode?
1-40 of 120Next »