When we think of x-rays, our minds probably go right to medical and dental services — typically, the only people who have the ability to take pictures using x-rays are radiologists and dentists. But in 2008, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles determined that virtually anyone can create an emission of x-rays — well, if you have access to a vacuum (as in, a space devoid of matter, not a Hoover), and some Scotch tape.
The experiment is simple, really. First, you need a vacuum. Inside, take the tape, stick it on something, and quickly pull it back. As the tape becomes unglued, a huge amount of electrons flows across the area. This, in turn, creates very short (a billionth of a second!) but very powerful bursts of x-rays. Seth J. Putterman, one of the professors involved in the study, told the New York Times that the experiment creates “some kind of microscopic lightning effect.” But even though the lifespan of this “lightning” is tiny, it’s significant: the x-ray emission was strong enough to allow the researchers to make an image of a finger, as seen here.
And yes, the vacuum is required, although the scientists researching the subject were not entirely sure why — only that absent a vacuum, all you get is a little bit of light. The Times suggests that the moisture in the air may prevent the tape from emitting x-rays. The downside: we’re not able to use Scotch tape to take pictures of our insides at our desks. But on the upside, there’s no risk at accidentally irradiating yourself next time you desire to affix two things together.
We also don’t know why the effect x-rays are created, at least not at a molecular level — and we probably won’t anytime soon. Scotch tape is a product of the 3M Company, and the exact molecular makeup of its adhesive is a trade secret — one not revealed to Putterman and his team.
From the Archives: Grape Balls of Fire: How to make plasma in your kitchen — with a video to prove it.