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Who Wants a Low-Cost Geiger Counter?

One of my chums just took delivery of a low-cost Geiger counter from eBay and he asks what he should do if it starts clicking furiously.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in a video conference in which we were performing a sound check for a forthcoming webinar for which I was to be the host (see Register Now for Free IoT Central Webinar). Every now and then, the sound engineer would ask, “Can anyone hear a chirping sound?” Everyone but your humble narrator would say “Yes” but — as is so often the case — I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Eventually, we tried muting the participants one at a time, by which means we determined that the chirping sound was originating with yours truly. It took ages for me to realize that they were hearing the Geiger counter sitting on the bookshelf in my office responding to stray radiation events. A few days later, I took part in a video interview with Jaime Villela as part of his Helping Engineers Become Better Communicators mission. One of the tales I told during our conversation was the origin of my Geiger counter.
Screenshot of Quickkway Geiger Counter on eBay (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: Quickkway)
I’ll tell you about this in a moment, but first I should note that this column was sparked by my chum Rick Curl who emailed me earlier today as I pen these words to say that he just took delivery of a low-cost Geiger counter from Quickkway that he’d purchased on eBay. In his email, Rick spake as follows: “It’s not as fancy as yours, but it does work fine. It got me to wondering — if I’m sitting here listening to those occasional clicks and all of a sudden it starts clicking furiously, what do I do? Break out the lead-lined underwear?” I will share my answer to Rick shortly, but first let me bring you up to date with regard to my own device. This all began around 10 years ago when I started thinking about the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, which is located about 15 miles from my office. I read a lot of science fiction (possibly more than is good for me), with the result that I’m permanently poised for an apocalypse to arrive in one form or another. As a result of my cogitations and ruminations, I purchased a cheap and cheerful DIY Geiger counter kit, which I happy assembled. Unfortunately, when I turned it on… nothing happened. The problem was that I really didn’t know what to expect. At that time, I had no idea how much radiation surrounds us on a constant basis, so I wasn’t sure whether my device was working but there was no radiation, or if there was radiation but my device was dead in the water. I tried contacting the folks at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant asking if I could meander over to test my Geiger counter against their reactor, but I gathered that they weren’t overly enthused by the idea, so I did what I usually do, which was to write a column about it. A few mornings later, when I arrived in my office and powered up my computer, I found an email from my chum David Ashton who hails from Down Under. David said that if I dropped my Geiger counter in the post to him, he would take a look at it for me. So, that lunchtime, I packed up my device and ambled down to the post office to send it on its way. When I returned to my office, I found a package containing radioactive glass marbles sitting on my desk. These were accompanied by a letter from one of my readers saying that he had more than enough radioactive marbles to satisfy his own requirements, so he was sending me some of his surplus to enable me to test my Geiger counter. Have you ever had “one of those days” — the sort where you start the day with a Geiger counter but no radioactive source, and you end the day with a handful of radioactive marbles but no Geiger counter? I don’t know about you, but this sort of thing seems to happen to me more often than not. Happily, David found what was wrong with my Geiger counter and shipped it back to me, at which point it started to chirp merrily whenever it was brought into close proximity with my radioactive marbles, so all was well in the land of Max (where the butterflies are bugger and brighter, the flowers are more colorful, the birds sing sweeter, and the beer runs plentiful and cold). But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.
PRM-9000 Geiger Counter (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: Mazur Instruments)
Sometime after my homegrown Geiger counter experiences, one of my old colleagues, Vince Mazur, the founder of Mazur Instruments, called me to say that he’d read my columns and that one of their PRM-9000 Geiger Counters was winging its way to me as we spoke. This is the little beauty that is currently chirping merrily away in my office. A word to the wise: However enthusiastic you are about monitoring radiation levels while flying to visit your dear old mom in England, it seems that airport security takes a dim view of finding an active Geiger counter chirping away in your luggage. Of course, it may have been that they were just having a “bad hair day” (I know I was after they had taken the time to detail their thoughts on the contents of my baggage). Returning to Rick, I asked if he had tried holding a banana next to his Geiger counter, and also a salt substitute based on potassium chloride, because both of these little rascals are a little radioactive. Rick replied that he will do so this afternoon. And finally, with regard to Rick’s question as to his best course of action should his Geiger counter suddenly start clicking furiously, I told him to call me immediately and I would show him how to panic (it’s just one more service I offer).

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Rick Curl

I don’t have any salt substitute handy, but I did try a banana and was not able to detect any additional radiation coming from it. I’ll have to call customer service and report that my banana is defective.
I did, however, find an ionization chamber from a smoke detector and I removed the outer housing, exposing the Americium-241 radioactive source inside. The geiger counter began clicking rapidly when I brought it close to the detection tube.
I’ve also heard that some of the “Fiesta” dinnerware is radioactive- especially the red and orange ones: https://www.thoughtco.com/how-radioactive-is-fiesta-ware-608648. I just found this article listing 10 household items that are radioactive: https://www.thoughtco.com/radioactive-everyday-products-608655. I knew about some of these, but beer, brazil nuts and kitty litter? I didn’t see that coming.

Steve Leibson

I have a vintage 50mm f1.4 Pentax lens from the 1960s. It has an antireflective coating of thorium, which will happily make my Geiger counter click madly when brought in proximity to it. Even more so than the vial of uranium ore I got from the Interwebs.

Steve Leibson
David Ashton

Max, I thought you already had some radioactive balls??
You’re just being greedy now…. 🙂

Last edited 24 days ago by David Ashton
David Ashton

At $35-odd I’d love to get one of the Quickkway ones, but in bold red letters on the Ebay page is
Does not ship to Australia
I didn’t realise Australia had offended china so much…..

Last edited 24 days ago by David Ashton
David Ashton

Well it sure as hell doesn’t make me gruntled…..

David Ashton

> so am I to understand that you are not fully gruntled?

Damn sure I’m not gruntled. Here am I willing to part with my hard earned cash and the miserable so and so’s don’t want it ‘cos I’m in Australia. Bloody drongos. I’m ropeable.

BTW Max, you want to get your spell check checked. It does not recognise “Gruntled”. (Nor Drongos or Ropeable for that matter…)

Last edited 23 days ago by David Ashton
Marcus Simons

We went to Germany past weekend, and went to the Erzgebied (Chemnitz area). This part of Germany in previous times was “East Area”.
The land south of Chemnitz is a very mineral rich area. During the cold war the Russians scraped the earth for minerals widely, and they also mined uranium. Depending on the rock formations, some really uranium-rich layers were found, where others were just considered as ‘waist’. This waist was used to create road beds. (Huuuuuuge amounts of rock !! )
So if you want to see radiation: Go to find these old road beds. Past weekend we saw 10~12 microSievert (background radiation is approx 0,2). And realize that there is 15cm of asphalt in between !
So, the separation of uranium rich from the non rich parts did not go that well ! The Germans now have this huge problem of polluted areas and roads, costing a vast amount if money to clean all of this. And this is due to the sloppy way of separation of uranium rock. So, say yes to the home-brew Geiger counter, because here it comes in handy. And if you are smart and read into this radiation stuff then there are good ways to calibrate it too.

I find this very interesting stuff that opens your eyes and also kandle the wonderment of young people who are interested in technology.

Marcus Simons

Hi Max,
Amazing stuff !
Our earth is so old, and the theory I consider as relevant and true. Therefore a bit of knowledge by everyone is not bad about nuclear energy, the positives and negatives, and about the possibilities we have by using uranium as an energy source. To the hard liner nay sayers I always ask: And what about if you get a disease, and you need nuclear methods to cure from it? Well, hell I am sure they are going to say *yes* to it ! 😉


Re: fusion reactors.

From what I can remember, they’ve been saying they might have something in 10 years for at least the last 20 years or so.

Rick Curl

Speaking of fusion reactors- I thought the movie “Chain Reaction” with Keanu Reaves was really good. Much to think about.

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