Forms of Ionizing Radiation

Interaction of Radiation with Matter

Interaction of Radiation with Matter

Ionizing radiation is categorized by the nature of the particles or electromagnetic waves that create the ionizing effect. These particles/waves have different ionization mechanisms, and may be grouped as:

  • Directly ionizing. Charged particles (atomic nuclei, electrons, positrons, protons, muons, etc.) can ionize atoms directly by fundamental interaction through the Coulomb force if it carries sufficient kinetic energy. These particles must be moving at relativistic speeds to reach the required kinetic energy. Even photons (gamma rays and X-rays) can ionize atoms directly (despite they are electrically neutral) through the Photoelectric effect and the Compton effect, but secondary (indirect) ionization is much more significant.
    • Alpha radiation. Alpha radiation consist of alpha particles at high energy/speed. The production of alpha particles is termed alpha decay. Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus. Alpha particles are relatively large and carry a double positive charge. They are not very penetrating and a piece of paper can stop them. They travel only a few centimeters but deposit all their energies along their short paths.
    • Beta radiation. Beta radiation consist of free electrons or positrons at relativistic speeds. Beta particles (electrons) are much smaller than alpha particles. They carry a single negative charge. They are more penetrating than alpha particles, but thin aluminum metal can stop them. They can travel several meters but deposit less energy at any one point along their paths than alpha particles.
  • Indirectly ionizing. Indirect ionizing radiation is electrically neutral particles and therefore does not interact strongly with matter. The bulk of the ionization effects are due to secondary ionizations.
    • Photon radiation (Gamma rays or X-rays). Photon radiation consist of high energy photons. These photons are particles/waves (Wave-Particle Duality) without rest mass or electrical charge. They can travel 10 meters or more in air. This is a long distance compared to alpha or beta particles. However, gamma rays deposit less energy along their paths. Lead, water, and concrete stop gamma radiation. Photons (gamma rays and X-rays) can ionize atoms directly through the Photoelectric effect and the Compton effect, where the relatively energetic electron is produced. The secondary electron will go on to produce multiple ionization events, therefore the secondary (indirect) ionization is much more significant.
    • Neutron radiation. Neutron radiation consist of free neutrons at any energies/speeds. Neutrons can be emitted by nuclear fission or by the decay of some radioactive atoms. Neutrons have zero electrical charge and cannot directly cause ionization. Neutrons ionize matter only indirectly. For example, when neutrons strike the hydrogen nuclei, proton radiation (fast protons) results. Neutrons can range from high speed, high energy particles to low speed, low energy particles (called thermal neutrons). Neutrons can travel hundreds of feet in air without any interaction.

Alpha Radiation

Alpha radiation consist of alpha particles, that are energetic nuclei of helium. The production of alpha particles is termed alpha decay. Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus. Alpha particles are relatively large and carry a double positive charge.

Key characteristics of alpha particles are summarized in few following points:

  • Alpha particles are energetic nuclei of helium and they are relatively heavy and carry a double positive charge.
  • Typical alpha particle have kinetic energy about 5 MeV. This is due to the nature of alpha decay.
  • Pure alpha decay is very rare, alpha decay is frequently accompanied by gamma radiation.
  • Alpha particles interact with matter primarily through coulomb forces (ionization and excitation of matter) between their positive charge and the negative charge of the electrons from atomic orbitals.
  • Alpha particles heavily ionize matter and they quickly lose their kinetic energy. Therefore alpha particles have very short ranges. On the other hand they deposit all their energies along their short paths.
  • For example, the ranges of a 5 MeV alpha particle (most have such initial energy) are approximately only 0,002 cm in aluminium alloy or approximately 3.5 cm in air.
  • The stopping power is well described by the Bethe formula.
  • The Bragg curve is typical for alpha particles and for other heavy charged particles and describes energy loss of ionizing radiation during travel through matter.
Alpha particles and electrons (deflected by a magnetic field) from a thorium rod in a cloud chamber
Alpha particles and electrons (deflected by a magnetic field) from a thorium rod in a cloud chamber
Shielding of Alpha and Beta Radiation
Basic materials for alpha particles shielding.
The stopping power of most materials is very high for alpha particles and for heavy charged particles. Therefore alpha particles have very short ranges. For example, the ranges of a 5 MeV alpha particle (most have such initial energy) are approximately only 0,002 cm in aluminium alloy or approximately 3.5 cm in air. Most alpha particles can be stopped by a thin piece of paper. Even the dead cells in the outer layer of human skin provides adequate shielding because alpha particles can’t penetrate it. 

See also: Interaction of Heavy Charged Particles with Matter

Alpha Particle - Interaction with MatterAlpha particles are energetic nuclei of helium. The production of alpha particles is termed alpha decay. Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus. Alpha particles are relatively large and carry a double positive charge. They are not very penetrating and a piece of paper can stop them. They travel only a few centimeters but deposit all their energies along their short paths. In nuclear reactors they are produced for example in the fuel (alpha decay of heavy nuclei). Alpha particles are commonly emitted by all of the heavy radioactive nuclei occuring in the nature (uranium, thorium or radium), as well as the transuranic elements (neptunium, plutonium or americium). Especially energetic alpha particles (except artificially accelerated helium nuclei) are produced in a nuclear process, which is known as a ternary fission. In this process, the nucleus of uranium is splitted into three charged particles (fission fragments) instead of the normal two. The smallest of the fission fragments most probably (90% probability) being an extra energetic alpha particle.

Interaction of Alpha Particles with Matter

Since the electromagnetic interaction extends over some distance, it is not necessary for an alpha particles to make a direct collision with an atom. They can transfer energy simply by passing close by. Alpha particles interact with matter primarily through coulomb forces between their positive charge and the negative charge of the electrons from atomic orbitals. In general, the alpha particles (like other charged particles) transfer energy mostly by:

  • Excitation. The charged particle can transfer energy to the atom, raising electrons to a higher energy levels.
  • Ionization. Ionization can occur, when the charged particle have enough energy to remove an electron. This results in a creation of ion pairs in surrounding matter.

Creation of pairs requires energy, which is lost from the kinetic energy of the alpha particle causing it to decelerate. The positive ions and free electrons created by the passage of the alpha particle will then reunite, releasing energy in the form of heat (e.g. vibrational energy or rotational energy of atoms). There are considerable differences in the ways of energy loss and scattering between the passage of light charged particles such as positrons and electrons and heavy charged particles such as fission fragments, alpha particles, muons. Most of these differences are based on the different dynamics of the collision process. In general, when a heavy particle collides with a much lighter particle (electrons in the atomic orbitals), the laws of energy and momentum conservation predict that only a small fraction of the massive particle’s energy can be transferred to the less massive particle. The actual amount of transferred energy depends on how closely the charged particles passes through the atom and it depends also on restrictions from quantisation of energy levels.

See also: Interaction of Heavy Charged Particles with Matter

Shielding of Alpha Radiation

The shielding of alpha radiation alone does not pose a difficult problem. On the other hand alpha radioactive nuclides can lead to serious health hazards when they are ingested or inhaled (internal contamination). When they are ingested or inhaled, the alpha particles from their decay significantly harm the internal living tissue. Moreover pure alpha radiation is very rare, alpha decay is frequently accompanied by gamma radiation which shielding is another issue.

In radiation protection there are three ways how to protect people from identified radiation sources:

  • Limiting Time. The amount of radiation exposure depends directly (linearly) on the time people spend near the source of radiation. The dose can be reduced by limiting exposure time.
  • Distance. The amount of radiation exposure depends on the distance from the source of radiation. Similarly to a heat from a fire, if you are too close, the intensity of heat radiation is high and you can get burned. If you are at the right distance, you can withstand there without any problems and moreover it is comfortable. If you are too far from heat source, the insufficiency of heat can also hurt you. This analogy, in a certain sense, can be applied to radiation also from radiation sources.
  • Shielding. Finally, if the source is too intensive and time or distance do not provide sufficient radiation protection, the shielding must be used. Radiation shielding usually consist of barriers of lead, concrete or water. There are many many materials, which can be used for radiation shielding, but there are many many situations in radiation protection. It highly depends on the type of radiation to be shielded, its energy and many other parametres. For example, even depleted uranium can be used as a good protection from gamma radiation, but on the other hand uranium is absolutely inappropriate shielding of neutron radiation.
radiation protection pronciples - time, distance, shielding

Principles of Radiation Protection – Time, Distance, Shielding

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Advanced Reactor Physics:

  1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
  2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
  3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2. 
  4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See previous:

See above:

See next: