Model Choo-Choo to Fusion-Reactor Physicists: "I'm Goin' In!"

By Brett Israel | December 29, 2009 2:00 am

toy-train-webNever let a group of scientists have too much time on their hands. While a fusion reactor was down for improvements, scientists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory unleashed their inner child and built a model train track inside the reactor. A toy train then chugged around the track for three days, according to The New York Times:

It was not an exercise in silliness, but in calibration.

The modified model of a diesel train engine was carrying a small chunk of californium-252, a radioactive element that spews neutrons as it falls apart.

In the past, scientists used a stationary neutron source to calibrate the reactor and to make sure it was accurately measuring emitted neutrons, but that doesn’t recreate how neutrons actually bounce around. Tossing a lump of californium on the moving train improved the accuracy 10-fold, according to the scientists.

Researchers at Princeton used toy trains for calibration decades ago in an older reactor, but anytime scientists build radioactive trains, people tend to pay attention.

An no, the train didn’t glow bright green or gain super powers—californium is only slightly radioactive, after all, and the toy train is now chugging around the Christmas tree in the lab’s lobby.

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Image: flickr / drcorneilus

MORE ABOUT: nuclear, toys
  • Keenan

    Nice. If I had to design something from scratch to move a source around in a circle, it would look pretty similar to a model train, so why not just use a train? Totally practical.

    BTW, I’ve been on a tour of NSTX and it’s pretty impressive. It’s much larger on the outside.

  • Nick

    Super great article, this is so funny. And I have that same train! Woo!

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