Getting their heads in the clouds

HOUGHTON – Scientists and researchers at Michigan Technological University and beyond will be going to the cloud to find answers – the cloud chamber that is.

“Basically this is a chamber that allows us to simulate the atmosphere all the way up to altitudes that airplanes fly at, so 10 to 15 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, where it’s very, very cold and very low pressure,” said Raymond Shaw, physics professor and director of the atmospheric sciences Ph.D. program at Michigan Tech. “So we can do both of those things in here – keep the temperature down to minus 80 Fahrenheit to less than a tenth of the atmosphere. We try to recreate the conditions that occur in clouds at that level There’s no facility in the United States where you can really simulate that full range of conditions. A lot of American scientists travel to Germany to a big cloud chamber they have there, because we don’t have those kinds of things here – but now we do.”

Delivered to Michigan Tech two weeks ago, the cloud chamber project has been in the works since 2007. After going through a bid process, Michigan Tech selected Russells Technical Products in Holland, Mich., to custom design the chambers based on certain specifications. Lead engineer Jim Bench and his team worked closely with Michigan Tech professors to create the chamber. Bench – who is a Michigan Tech alumnus – took his experience with pressure chambers and fluid systems to design the one-of-a-kind cloud chamber.

“They gave us the specifications of what they wanted us to do and it looked a little different to us but like something we could do if we worked with the physics department here,” Bench said.

“They close the doors and they can purge in whatever they want – whatever gases they want to use or just room air if they want. They can set that up however their experiment needs to be. It’s really one of the benefits of this piece of equipment – it’s so versatile.”

That versatility is apparent in the experiments already planned for the chamber. Bill Rose, research professor at Michigan Tech, plans to study how particles from volcanic eruptions affect air travel. Without the cloud chamber, Rose would rely mainly on mathematical equations.

“Most of the parameters we put in a model are little mathematical unknowns about this that we just don’t know very precisely because we’ve never been able to test it. Nobody wants to take an airplane up there to get a sample,” Rose said. “So this chamber will enable us to simulate those kinds of things. We can put some volcanic ash in there and see what happens – we can change the conditions and learn about parameters so we can develop a really good model that will increase the safety.”

Although volcanic eruptions are unlikely in the Upper Peninsula, Shaw’s research may hit closer to home.

“One of the problems that I’m interested it, it’s one of the most exciting things for me to study, is the kinds of clouds that occur that lead to the heavy snowfall in the U.P., so lake effect snow,” he said. “Those clouds contain liquid water that’s actually below the freezing point called super-cooled water. This water really should be frozen but it’s not. Essentially it needs a catalyst, something to push it over the edge. How that transition from liquid to ice happens influences our daily life – it influences how much you and I have to shovel after a snowstorm.”

The scientists at Michigan Tech are currently testing the machine before starting their research projects. Shaw expects that within a few months the machine will be fully functional and available to professors, students and visiting scholars.