Making a cloud by expansion
Practical Activity for 14-16
This shows the principle of cooled, supersaturated air producing clouds. It is more directly relevant to the expansion (Wilson) cloud chamber than the diffusion cloud chamber, in which the method of cooling the air is different. However, the basic ideas are the same and this experiment is a good lead in to either.
Apparatus and Materials
- Aspirator or large flask, 10 litres
- Bung to close lower outlet of aspirator
- Bung with glass tube
- Short length of rubber tubing
- Compact light source and power supply
Health & Safety and Technical Notes
The air inside the aspirator contains water vapour. When the bung is removed, the expansion causes the air to cool and a cloud is formed. This is similar to cloud formation when air is forced upwards into the atmosphere.
- For the cloud to be clearly visible by the class, it needs bright lighting from the side and a very dark background, in a partially dark room (see teaching notes below). Set up the black card behind the aspirator and illuminate it from the side using the compact light source.
- Put a few cm3 of water in the aspirator. Close with the bung and tubing attached.
Carrying out the demonstration
- Blow down the rubber tubing to raise the pressure inside, and then pinch the end of the tubing. Wait about a minute to allow the air to cool down again.
- Pull the bung out sharply. This allows the air to expand rapidly. You should see a cloud in the aspirator.
- After the cloud has formed, replace the bung and tube. Blow into the bottle in order to show the cloud disappearing.
- Repeat the procedure to produce another cloud. This time allow the cloud to settle.
- After you have produced a few clouds and allowed them to settle, they will begin to look thinner and may stop appearing. This is because the clouds are cleaning the air inside the aspirator and any dust is settling to the bottom. The number of condensation nuclei in the air is reduced.
- Once the clouds stop appearing, throw a lighted match into the aspirator. You will then see good clouds again. The match provides ions and smoke particles to act as condensation nuclei.
- Make the point that it is the cooling of the air that makes it supersaturated and ready to form a cloud.
- The presence of condensation nuclei allows the cloud to form.
- The smoke particles act as condensation nuclei. This is similar to the smogs that occurred in London up to the 1950s and 1960s, with the worst ‘pea souper’ in 1952 leading to the Clean Air Act (in 1956).
This experiment was safety-tested in April 2006