How to Build Your Own CT Scanner

More than meets the eye: The ingredients for a DIY medical marvel

ctscanner-615.jpg imgur

This is what the insides of a CT scanner look like. (Click for full size.)

Stripped of its clinical white casing, the scanner's frame seems as if it'd be more at home on the Death Star than in a hospital. A surface inspection suggests it needs at least seven fans to keep it cool, what must be miles of wiring, and enough metal to build a small boat.

As complex a device as this may look, though, a CT scanner is really made up of just four or five major components. With the right mix of pluck and equipment, anybody could turn this into a weekend project. Want to build your own? Here's what you'll need:

  • An X-ray tube consisting of an anode and a cathode. The tube is vacuum sealed, placed inside a housing, and mounted into the scanner's rotating frame.
  • Collimators, which are devices that allow the X-ray photons to be targeted at a specific part of the body. Other collimators in the CT scanner block stray X-ray photons from reaching the detector.
  • A detector array. One of the most common kinds of X-ray detectors involve xenon gas sandwiched between tungsten metal plates. When the detector is bombarded with X-ray photons, they react with the xenon to produce collectible images.
  • A power source. X-ray tubes run on high voltages, so you'll need what's called an autotransformer, or a large loop of wire wound around a core. With the transformer, you can get about twice the energy that you put in.
  • Copper or aluminum filters to remove low-energy X-ray photons.

Here's a more exhaustive list of ingredients that also covers what you'll need for putting a human inside this ring of death and analyzing the images that come back from it:

Once you've collected those, the last things you'll want to acquire are a bunch of tools, a big backyard, a Ph.D in mechanical engineering, and some camouflage netting to disarm curious passersby. And if you want to test it out, you might tack on a few years of radiology training for good measure. Piece of cake.

Presented by

Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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