One-of-a-kind X-ray instrument sees all the bubbles

AMES, Iowa -- Ted Heindel calls it a lead tree house.

And why not? The X-ray flow visualization facility in his lab at Iowa State University is perched 12 feet above the floor. A Plexiglas column the size of a tree trunk runs up and through it. And all those beams holding everything up support nine tons of X-ray-stopping lead.

Heindel, the William and Virginia Binger associate professor of mechanical engineering, said he knows of no other X-ray facility in the world that can do what this one can do.

The $640,145 instrument, dubbed the XFloViz facility, can take X-ray images of liquids, solids and gases as they flow through a Plexiglas column 12.6 inches in diameter and nearly 20 feet high.

If, for example, a company that recycles paper wants to get a better grasp of what happens when ink-removing bubbles pass through a mixture of water and paper fiber, the XFloViz facility can see into the murky mixture and record images of what's happening. That's better than trying to gather data by sticking a probe into the mixture because probes can get clogged, Heindel said. And then researchers don't know what they're measuring.

Terry Jensen, a scientist for Iowa State's Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, helped design the XFloViz facility using some of the X-ray technology used at the center. He said the new facility's size and its two X-ray imaging systems make it unique.

"This gives a much more realistic picture that can be translated into industrial applications," he said.

Heindel said Iowa State's instrument has potential research applications in the recycling, petroleum, chemical, paper and food processing industries. It also has potential to help academic researchers better understand what they call multiphase flows, or mixtures of liquids, solids and gases flowing through a system.

Joe Gray, the X-ray group leader at the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation who also helped develop the XFloViz facility, said he expects the facility will be very useful for some of the center's work.

A jet engine company, for example, wants the center to develop a system to inspect pipe welds. To do that, the center will need to take some 3-D scans of welds. Gray said the XFloViz facility will be the instrument of choice because it has a larger field of view and can therefore make X-ray images of larger objects.

Heindel said the facility is still in its test-drive phase. He has used it to record X-ray images of bubbles a foot wide going up a water-filled column. He's recorded smaller bubbles rising through a water and fiber mixture. And he's made images of a bread loaf that can be electronically sliced to see what's inside.

Heindel said it will likely be about six months before researchers are ready to use the facility for specific industrial or academic projects.