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Research into the Physics behind Medical X-Ray Machines

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Physics behind Medical X-Ray Machines                        

One of the most useful forms of energy is X-rays, with their primary use being in the medical field. X –rays were discovered in 1895 by German physicist Wilhem C. Roentgen while he was experimenting with electron beams.  With the ability to penetrate hard objects, they are used for purposes such as airport security checkpoints to see into bags, or in the medical field to look for broken bones or problems within the body. The two major elements that make up a medical X-ray machine are X-ray tube, and X-ray imaging.

The positive terminal (anode) of the X-ray tube is made of solid copper due to its good conductivity of heat. 99% of the energy is converted to the heat which is generated in the X-ray tube. The anode if connected to the negative terminal (cathode) of the tube through high voltage. The cathode emits electrons which are then collected by the targeted tungsten anode. Electrons are

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. 2nd ed. Adelaide: Adelaide Tuition Centre.

Due to the high voltage difference between the cathode and anode, the electrons travel through the tube with a great amount of force.  Most of the kinetic energy contained in the electron beam is converted to heat.As a speeding electron collides with a tungsten atom, the electron in the higher orbital is knocked down to a lower energy level.


The free electron collides with the tungsten atom, knocking an electron out of a lower orbital. A higher orbital electron fills the empty position, releasing its excess energy as a photon.

Figure 2

Image: http://science.howstuffworks.com/x-ray2.htm

The X-ray photon-generating effect is generally called the ‘Bremsstrahlung’ effect, a German term, ‘brems’ for braking, and ‘strahlung’ for radiation. Electrons arriving at the target point have the same kinetic energy until they enter the tungsten to which they are attracted to the positive nuclei, thus changing direction. As electrons decelerate due to the attraction to the nuclei, kinetic energy is lost as a photon of electromagnetic radiation.


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As a result, bones appear white on the X-ray, tissue shows up in shades of grey and air appears black.


The areas that are exposed to more light appear darker and the areas that are exposed to less light appear lighter.

Figure 5

Image: http://www.aquantumofknowledge.com/2010/08/31/the-physics-of-x-ray-imaging/

702 words


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  1. WIKIPEDIA. 2012. X-Ray. [ONLINE] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-ray. [Accessed 16 August 12].
  1. Tom Harris. 2002. How X-Rays Work. [ONLINE] Available at: http://science.howstuffworks.com/x-ray2.htm. [Accessed 16 August 12]
  1. Ryan K. 2010. The Physics of X-Ray Imaging. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.aquantumofknowledge.com/2010/08/31/the-physics-of-x-ray-imaging/. [Accessed 16 August 12].
  1. Radiological Society of North America. 2012. Bone X-Ray (Radiography). [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=bonerad. [Accessed 16 August 12].
  1. Moncton, David E. "X rays." World Book Student.World Book, 2012. 16 Aug. 2012
  1. Olesnicky, A, Lawrence, N, 1999. Physics SACE 2 Essentials Workook. 2nd ed. Adelaide: Adelaide Tuition Centre.
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