Gamma rays, also known as gamma radiation, refers to electromagnetic radiation (no rest mass, no charge) of a very high energies. Gamma rays are high-energy photons with very short wavelengths and thus very high frequency. Since the gamma rays are in substance only a very high-energy photons, they are very penetrating matter and are thus biologically hazardous. Gamma rays can travel thousands of feet in air and can easily pass through the human body.

Gamma rays are emitted by unstable nuclei in their transition from a high energy state to a lower state known as gamma decay. In most practical laboratory sources, the excited nuclear states are created in the decay of a parent radionuclide, therefore a gamma decay typically accompanies other forms of decay, such as alpha or beta decay.

Radiation and also gamma rays are all around us. In, around, and above the world we live in. It is a part of our natural world that has been here since the birth of our planet. Natural sources of gamma rays on Earth are inter alia gamma rays from naturally occurring radionuclides, particularly potassium-40.  Potasium-40 is a radioactive isotope of potassium which has a very long half-life of 1.251×109 years (comparable to the age of Earth). This isotope can be found in soil, water also in meat and bananas. This is not the only example of natural source of gamma rays.

A photon, the quantum of electromagnetic radiation,  is an elementary particle, which is the force carrier of the electromagnetic force. The modern photon concept was developed (1905) by Albert Einstein to explain of the photoelectric effect, in which he proposed the existence of discrete energy packets during the transmission of light.

Before Albert Einstein, notably the German physicist Max Planck had prepared the way for the concept by explaining that objects that emit and absorb light do so only in amounts of energy that are quantized, that means every change of energy can occur only by certain particular discrete amounts and the object cannot change energy in any arbitrary way. The concept of modern photon came into general use after the physicist Arthur H. Compton demonstrated (1923) the corpuscular nature of X-rays. This was the validation that  Einstein’s hypothesis that light itself is quantized.

The term photon comes from Greek phōtos, “light” and a photon is usually denoted by the symbol γ (gamma). The photons are also symbolized by hν (in chemistry and optical engineering), where h is Planck’s constant and the Greek letter ν (nu) is the photon’s frequency. The radiation frequency is key parameter of all photons, because it determines the energy of a photon. Photons are categorized according to the energies from low-energy radio waves and infrared radiation, through visible light, to high-energy X-rays and gamma rays.

Photons are gauge bosons for electromagnetism, having no electric charge or rest mass and one unit of spin. Common to all photons is the speed of light, the universal constant of physics. In empty space, the photon moves at c (the speed of light – 299 792 458 metres per second).

Barium-137m is a product of a common fission product - Caesium - 137. The main gamma ray of Barium-137m is 661keV photon.Barium-137m is a product of a common fission product – Caesium – 137. The main gamma ray of Barium-137m is 661keV photon.

Discovery of Gamma Rays

Antoine Henri Becquerel

Antoine Henri Becquerel

Gamma rays were discovered shortly after discovery of X-rays. In 1896, French scientist Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium minerals could expose a photographic plate through another material. Becquerel presumed that uranium emitted some invisible light similar to X-rays, which were recently discovered by W.C.Roentgen. He called it “metallic phosphorescence”. In fact, Henri Becquerel had found gamma radiation being emitted by radioisotope 226Ra (radium), which is part of the Uranium series of uranium decay chain.
Gamma rays were first thought to be particles with mass, for example extremely energetic beta particles. This opinion failed, because this radiation cannot be deflected by a magnetic field, what indicated they had no charge. In 1914, gamma rays were observed to be reflected from crystal surfaces, proving they must be electromagnetic radiation, but with higher energy (higher frequency and shorter wavelengths).

Characteristics of Gamma Rays / Radiation

Key features of gamma rays are summarized in following few points:

  • Gamma rays are high-energy photons (about 10 000 times as much energy as the visible photons), the same photons as the photons forming the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum – light.
  • Photons have no mass and no electrical charge, therefore they cannot directly ionize matter, neither gamma rays.
  • Despite this fact, gamma rays ionize matter via indirect ionization.
  • Although a large number of possible interactions are known, there are three key interaction mechanisms  with matter.
    • Photoelectric effect
    • Compton scattering
    • Pair production
  • Gamma rays travel at the speed of light and they can travel thousands of meters in air before spending their energy.
  • Since the gamma radiation is very penetrating matter, it must be shielded by very dense materials, such as lead or uranium.
  • The distinction between X-rays and gamma rays is not so simple and has changed in recent decades.  According to the currently valid definition, X-rays are emitted by electrons outside the nucleus, while gamma rays are emitted by the nucleus.
  • Gamma rays frequently accompany the emission of alpha and beta radiation.
Gamma rays attuenuation

The relative importance of various processes of gamma radiation interaction with matter.

Comparison of particles in a cloud chamber. Source: wikipedia.orgComparison of particles in a cloud chamber. Source: wikipedia.org
Total photon cross sections.  Source: Wikimedia CommonsTotal photon cross sections.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Photoelectric Effect

The phenomenon, that a surface (typically alkali metals) when exposed to electromagnetic radiation (visible light) emits electrons, was discovered by Hertz and Hallwachs in 1887 during experiments with a spark-gap generator. Hertz found that the sensitivity of his spark-gap device can be increased by exposition to visible or ultraviolet light and that light obviously had some electrical effect. He did not further pursue investigation of this effect.
Shortly after Hertz’s discovery in 1899, English physicist J.J.Thomson showed that UV light, which fall onto metal surface, trigger the emission of electrons from the surface. In 1902, Hungarian physicist Philipp Lenard made the first quantitative measurements of the photoelectric effect. He observed that the energy of individual emitted electrons increased with the frequency of the light (which is related to the color).

the luminiferous aether

The luminiferous aether. It was hypothesised that the Earth moves through a “medium” of aether that carries light. It has been replaced in modern physics by the theory of relativity and quantum theory.
Source: wikipedia.org

While this is interesting, it is hardly explainable by classical theory of electromagnetic radiation which assumed the existence of a stationary medium (the luminiferous aether) through which light propagated. Subsequent investigations into the photoelectric effect results in the fact that these explorations did not fit with the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published four groundbreaking papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of mass and energy. These papers were published in the Annalen der Physik journal and contributed significantly to the foundation of modern physics. In the paper on the photoelectric effect (“On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light”) he solved the paradox by describing light as composed of discrete quanta (German: das Lichtquant), rather than continuous waves.
This theory was builded on Max Planck’s blackbody radiation theory, which assumes that luminous energy can be absorbed or emitted only in discrete amounts, called quanta. The photon’s energy in each quantum of light is equal to its frequency (ν) multiplied by a constant known as Planck’s constant (h), or alternately, using the wavelength (λ) and the speed of light (c):

E=hc/λ=hν

Photoelectric effect with photons from visible spectrum on potassium plate - threshold energy - 2eV

Photoelectric effect with photons from visible spectrum on potassium plate – threshold energy – 2eV

Each photon above a threshold frequency (specific for each material) has the needed energy to eject a single electron, creating the observed effect. Einstein’s theory predicts that the maximum kinetic energy of emitted electron is dependent only on the frequency of the incident light and not on its intensity. Shining twice as much light (high-intensity) results in twice as many photons, and more electrons releasing, but the maximum kinetic energy of those individual electrons remains the same. Experimentation in the photoelectric effect was carried out extensively by Robert Millikan in 1915, Robert Millikan showed that Einstein’s prediction was correct. This discovery contributed to the quantum revolution in physics and earned Einstein the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

  • The photoelectric effect dominates at low-energies of gamma rays.
  • The photoelectric effect leads to the emission of photoelectrons from matter when light (photons) shines upon them.
  • The maximum energy an electron can receive in any one interaction is .
  • Electrons are only emitted by the photoelectric effect if photon reaches or exceeds a threshold energy.
  • A free electron (e.g. from atomic cloud) cannot absorb entire energy of the incident photon. This is a result of the need to conserve both momentum and energy.
  • The cross-section for the emission of n=1 (K-shell) photoelectrons is higher than that of n=2 (L-shell) photoelectrons. This is a result of the need to conserve momentum and energy.

Definition of Photoelectric effect

In the photoelectric effect, a photon undergoes an interaction with an electron which is bound in an atom. In this interaction the incident photon completely disappears and an energetic photoelectron is ejected by the atom from one of its bound shells. The kinetic energy of the ejected photoelectron (Ee) is equal to the incident photon energy (hν) minus the binding energy of the photoelectron in its original shell (Eb).

Ee=hν-Eb

Therefore photoelectrons are only emitted by the photoelectric effect if photon reaches or exceeds a threshold energy – the binding energy of the electron – the work function of the material. For gamma rays with energies of more than hundreds keV, the photoelectron carries off the majority of the incident photon energy – hν.

Following a photoelectric interaction, an ionized absorber atom is created with a vacancy in one of its bound shells. This vacancy is will be quickly filled by an electron from a shell with a lower binding energy (other shells) or through capture of a free electron from the material. The rearrangement of electrons from other shells creates another vacancy, which, in turn, is filled by an electron from an even lower binding energy shell. Therefore a cascade of more characteristic X-rays can be also generated. The probability of characteristic x-ray emission decreases as the atomic number of the absorber decreases. Sometimes , the emission of an Auger electron occurs.

Photoelectric effect with photons from visible spectrum on potassium plate - threshold energy - 2eVPhotoelectric effect with photons from visible spectrum on potassium plate – threshold energy – 2eV
Gamma absorption by an atom. Source: laradioactivite.com/

Cross-Sections of Photoelectric Effect

At small values of gamma ray energy the photoelectric effect dominates. The mechanism is also enhaced for materials of high atomic number Z. It is not simple to derive analytic expression for the probability of photoelectric absorption of gamma ray per atom over all ranges of gamma ray energies. The probability of photoelectric absorption per unit mass is approximately proportional to:

τ(photoelectric) = constant x ZN/E3.5

where Z is the atomic number, the exponent n varies between 4 and 5. E is the energy of the incident photon. The proportionality to higher powers of the atomic number Z is the main reason for using of high Z materials, such as lead or depleted uranium in gamma ray shields.

Although the probability of the photoelectric absorption of gamma photon decreases, in general, with increasing photon energy, there are sharp discontinuities in the cross-section curve. These are called “absoption edges” and they correspond to the binding energies of electrons from atom’s bound shells. For photons with the energy just above the edge, the photon energy is just sufficient to undergo the photoelectric interaction with electron from  bound shell, let say K-shell. The probability of such interaction is just above this edge much greater than that of photons of energy slightly below this edge. For gamma photons below this edge the interaction with electron from K-shell in energetically impossible and therefore the probability drops abruptly. These edges occur also at binding energies of electrons from other shells (L, M, N …..).

Cross section of photoelectric effect.Cross section of photoelectric effect.

Compton Scattering

Key characteristics of Compton Scattering

  • Compton scattering dominates at intermediate energies.
  • It is the scattering of photons by atomic electrons  
  • Photons undergo a wavelength shift called the Compton shift.
  • The energy transferred to the recoil electron can vary from zero to a large fraction of the incident gamma ray energy

Definition of Compton Scattering

Compton scattering is the inelastic or nonclassical scattering of a photon (which may be an X-ray or gamma ray photon) by a charged particle, usually an electron. In Compton scattering, the incident gamma ray photon is deflected through an angle Θ with respect to its original direction. This deflection results in a decrease in energy (decrease in photon’s frequency) of the photon and is called the Compton effect. The photon transfers a portion of its energy to the recoil electron. The energy transferred to the recoil electron can vary from zero to a large fraction of the incident gamma ray energy, because all angles of scattering are possible. The Compton scattering was observed by A. H.Compton in 1923 at Washington University in St. Louis. Compton earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927 for this new understanding about the particle-nature of photons.

Compton Scattering Formula

The Compton formula was published in 1923 in the Physical Review. Compton explained that the X-ray shift is caused by particle-like momentum of photons. Compton scattering formula is the mathematical relationship between the shift in wavelength and the scattering angle of the X-rays. In the case of Compton scattering the photon of frequency f collides with an electron at rest. Upon collision, the photon bounces off electron, giving up some of its initial energy (given by Planck’s formula E=hf), While the electron gains momentum (mass x velocity), the photon cannot lower its velocity. As a result of momentum conservetion law, the photon must lower its momentum given by:

As a result of momentum conservetion law, the photon must lower its momentum given by this formula.

So the decrease in photon’s momentum must be translated into decrease in frequency (increase in wavelength Δλ = λ’ – λ). The shift of the wavelength increased with scattering angle according to the Compton formula:

The shift of the wavelength increased with scattering angle according to the Compton formula

Compton Scattering

In Compton scattering, the incident gamma-ray photon is deflected through an angle Θ with respect to its original direction. This deflection results in a decrease in energy (decrease in photon’s frequency) of the photon and is called the Compton effect.
Source: hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu

where

λ is the initial wavelength of photon

λ’ is the wavelength after scattering,

h is the Planck constant = 6.626 x 10-34 J.s

me is the electron rest mass (0.511 MeV)

c is the speed of light

Θ is the scattering angle.

The minimum change in wavelength (λ′λ) for the photon occurs when Θ = 0° (cos(Θ)=1) and is at least zero. The maximum change in wavelength (λ′λ) for the photon occurs when Θ = 180° (cos(Θ)=-1). In this case the photon transfers to the electron as much momentum as possible.The maximum change in wavelength can be derived from Compton formula:

The maximum change in wavelength can be derived from Compton formula. Compton length

The quantity h/mec is known as the Compton wavelength of the electron and is equal to 2.43×10−12 m.

Compton Scattering – Cross-Sections

The probability of Compton scattering per one interaction with an atom increases linearly with atomic number Z, because it depends on the number of electrons, which are available for scattering in the target atom. The angular distribution of photons scattered from a single free electron is described by the Klein-Nishina formula:

The angular distribution of photons scattered from a single free electron is described by the Klein-Nishina formula

where ε = E0/mec2 and r0 is the “classical radius of the electron” equal to about 2.8 x 10-13 cm. The formula gives the probability of scattering a photon into the solid angle element dΩ = 2π sin Θ dΘ when the incident energy is E0.

Compton scattering experiment

The wavelength change in such scattering depends only upon the angle of scattering for a given target particle.
Source: hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/

Cross section of compton scattering of photons by atomic electrons.Cross section of compton scattering of photons by atomic electrons.. Energies of a photon at 500 keV and an electron after Compton scattering.Energies of a photon at 500 keV and an electron after Compton scattering.

Compton Edge

In spectrophotometry, the Compton edge is a feature of the spectrograph that results from the Compton scattering in the scintillator or detector. This feature is due to photons that undergo Compton scattering with a scattering angle of 180° and then escape the detector. When a gamma ray scatters off the detector and escapes, only a fraction of its initial energy can be deposited in the sensitive layer of the detector. It depends on the scattering angle of the photon, how much energy will be deposited in the detector. This leads to a spectrum of energies. The Compton edge energy corresponds to full backscattered photon.

Inverse Compton Scattering

Inverse Compton scattering is the scattering of low energy photons to high energies by relativistic electrons. Relativistic electrons can boost energy of low energy photons by a potentially enormous amount (even gamma rays can be produced). This phenomenon is very important in astrophysics.

Compton edge of 60Co on gamma spectrometer Na(Tl).Compton edge of 60Co on gamma spectrometer Na(Tl).
Inverse Compton scattering source: venables.asu.edusource: venables.asu.edu

Positron-Electron Pair Production

In general, pair production is a phenomenon of nature where energy is direct converted to matter. The phenomenon of pair production can be view two different ways. One way is as a particle and antiparticle and the other is as a particle and a hole. The first way can be represented by formation of electron and positron, from a packet of electromagnetic energy (high energy photon – gamma ray) traveling through matter.  It is one of the possible ways in which gamma rays interact with matter. At high energies this interaction dominates.

In order for electron-positron pair production to occur, the electromagnetic energy of the photon must be above a threshold energy, which is equivalent to the rest mass of two electrons. The threshold energy (the total rest mass of produced particles) for electron-positron pair production is equal to 1.02MeV (2 x 0.511MeV) because the rest mass of a single electron is equivalent to 0.511MeV of energy.

If the original photon’s energy is greater than 1.02MeV, any energy above 1.02MeV is according to the conservation law split between the kinetic energy of motion of the two particles.

The presence of an electric field of a heavy atom such as lead or uranium is essential in order to satisfy conservation of momentum and energy. In order to satisfy both conservation of momentum and energy, the atomic nucleus must receive some momentum. Therefore a photon pair production in free space cannot occur.

Moreover, the positron is the anti-particle of the electron, so when a positron comes to rest, it interacts with another electron, resulting in the annihilation of the both particles and the complete conversion of their rest mass back to pure energy (according to the E=mc2 formula) in the form of two oppositely directed 0.511 MeV gamma rays (photons). The pair production phenomenon is therefore connected with creation and destruction of matter in one reaction.

Positron-Electron Pair Production – Cross-Section

The probability of pair production, characterized by cross section, is a very complicated function based on quantum mechanics. In general the cross section increases approximately with the square of atomic number p ~ Z2) and increases with photon energy, but this dependence is much more complex.
Pair production in chamber
Cross section of pair production  in nuclear field and electron field.Cross section of pair production  in nuclear field and electron field.

Gamma Rays Attenuation

The total cross-section of interaction of a gamma rays with an atom is equal to the sum of all three mentioned partial cross-sections:

σ = σf + σC + σ

  • σf – Photoelectric effect
  • σC – Compton scattering
  • σp – Pair production

Depending on the gamma ray energy and the absorber material, one of the three partial cross-sections may become much larger than the other two. At small values of gamma ray energy the photoelectric effect dominates. Compton scattering dominates at intermediate energies. The compton scattering also increases with decreasing atomic number of matter, therefore the interval of domination is wider for light nuclei. Finally, electron-positron pair production dominates at high energies.

Based on the definition of interaction cross-section, the dependence of gamma rays intensity on thickness of absorber material can be derive. If monoenergetic gamma rays are collimated into a narrow beam and if the detector behind the material only detects the gamma rays that passed through that material without any kind of interaction with this material, then the dependence should be simple exponential attenuation of gamma rays. Each of these interactions removes the photon from the beam either by absorbtion or by scattering away from the detector direction. Therefore the interactions can be characterized by a fixed probability of occurance per unit path length in the absorber. The sum of these probabilities is called the linear attenuation coefficient:

μ = τ(photoelectric) +  σ(Compton) + κ(pair)

Gamma rays attuenuation

The relative importance of various processes of gamma radiation interaction with matter.

Linear Attenuation Coefficient

The attenuation of gamma radiation can be then described by the following equation.

I=I0.e-μx

, where I is intensity after attenuation,  Io is incident intensity,  μ is the linear attenuation coefficient (cm-1), and physical thickness of absorber (cm).

Attenuation

Dependence of gamma radiation intensity on absorber thickness

The materials listed in the table beside are air, water and a different elements from carbon (Z=6) through to lead (Z=82) and their linear attenuation coefficients are given for three gamma ray energies. There are two main features of the linear attenuation coefficient:

  • The linear attenuation coefficient increases as the atomic number of the absorber increases.
  • The linear attenuation coefficient for all materials decreases with the energy of the gamma rays.

Half Value Layer

The half value layer expresses the thickness of absorbing material needed for reduction of the incident radiation intensity by a factor of two. There are two main features of the half value layer:

  • The half value layer decreases as the atomic number of the absorber increases. For example 35 m of air is needed to reduce the intensity of a 100 keV gamma ray beam by a factor of two whereas just 0.12 mm of lead can do the same thing.
  • The half value layer for all materials increases with the energy of the gamma rays. For example from 0.26 cm for iron at 100 keV to about 1.06 cm at 500 keV.

Mass Attenuation Coefficient

When characterizing an absorbing material, we can use sometimes the mass attenuation coefficient.  The mass attenuation coefficient is defined as the ratio of the linear attenuation coefficient and absorber density (μ/ρ). The attenuation of gamma radiation can be then described by the following equation:

I=I0.e-(μ/ρ).ρl

, where ρ is the material density, (μ/ρ) is the mass attenuation coefficient and ρ.l is the mass thickness. The measurement unit used for the mass attenuation coefficient cm2g-1.

For intermediate energies the Compton scattering dominates and different absorbers have approximately equal mass attenuation coefficients. This is due to the fact that cross section of Compton scattering is proportional to the Z (atomic number) and therefore the coefficient is proportional to the material density ρ. At small values of gamma ray energy or at high values of gamma ray energy, where the coefficient is proportional to higher powers of the atomic number Z (for photoelectric effect σf ~ Z5; for pair production σp ~ Z2), the attenuation coefficient μ is not a constant.

Example:

How much water schielding do you require, if you want to reduce the intensity of a 500 keV monoenergetic gamma ray beam (narrow beam) to 1% of its incident intensity? The half value layer for 500 keV gamma rays in water is 7.15 cm and the linear attenuation coefficient for 500 keV gamma rays in water is 0.097 cm-1.

The question is quite simple and can be described by following equation:

I(x)=\frac{I_{0}}{100},\;\; when\; x =?

If the half value layer for water is 7.15 cm, the linear attenuation coefficient is:

\mu=\frac{ln2}{7.15}=0.097cm^{-1}

Now we can use the exponential attenuation equation:

I(x)=I_0\;exp\;(-\mu x)

\frac{I_0}{100}=I_0\;exp\;(-0.097 x)

therefore

\frac{1}{100}=\;exp\;(-0.097 x)

ln\frac{1}{100}=-ln\;100=-0.097 x

x=\frac{ln100}{{0.097}}=47.47\;cm

So the required thickness of water is about 47.5 cm.  This is relatively large thickness and it is caused by small atomic numbers of hydrogen and oxygen. If we calculate the same problem for lead (Pb), we obtain the thickness x=2.8cm.

 

Linear Attenuation Coefficients

Table of Linear Attenuation Coefficients (in cm-1) for a different materials at gamma ray energies of 100, 200 and 500 keV.

Absorber 100 keV 200 keV 500 keV
Air   0.000195/cm   0.000159/cm   0.000112/cm
Water 0.167/cm 0.136/cm 0.097/cm
Carbon 0.335/cm 0.274/cm 0.196/cm
Aluminium 0.435/cm 0.324/cm 0.227/cm
Iron 2.72/cm 1.09/cm 0.655/cm
Copper 3.8/cm 1.309/cm 0.73/cm
Lead 59.7/cm 10.15/cm 1.64/cm

Half Value Layers

Table of Half Value Layers (in cm) for a different materials at gamma ray energies of 100, 200 and 500 keV.

Absorber 100 keV 200 keV 500 keV
Air 3555 cm 4359 cm 6189 cm
Water 4.15 cm 5.1 cm 7.15 cm
Carbon 2.07 cm 2.53 cm 3.54 cm
Aluminium 1.59 cm 2.14 cm 3.05 cm
Iron 0.26 cm 0.64 cm 1.06 cm
Copper 0.18 cm 0.53 cm 0.95 cm
Lead  0.012 cm  0.068 cm  0.42 cm

Validity of Exponential Law

The exponential law will always describe the attenuation of the primary radiation by matter. If secondary particles are produced
or if the primary radiation changes its energy or direction, then the effective attenuation will be much less. The radiation will penetrate more deeply into matter than is
predicted by the exponential law alone. The processmust be taken into account when
evaluating the effect of radiation shielding.

Example of build-up of secondary particles. Strongly depends on character and parameters of primary particles.

Example of build-up of secondary particles. Strongly depends on character and parameters of primary particles.

See previous:

See above:

See next: