Detection of alpha radiation is very specific, because alpha particles travel only a few centimeters in air but deposit all their energies along their short paths, thus the amount of energy transferred is very high.
In order to describe principles of detection of alpha radiation, we have to understand the interaction of radiation with matter. Each type particle interacts in a different way, therefore we must describe interaction of alpha particles (radiation as a flow of these particles) separately.
Interaction of Heavy Charged Particles with Matter
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. In general, heavy 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.
The distance required to bring the particle to rest is referred to as its range. The range of heavy charged particles in solids amounts to only a few microns, and thus most of the energy of these particles is converted to heat very close to the point of its creation. In case of gases the range increases to a few centimeters in dependence of gas parameters (density, type of gas etc.) This distance is very important for detectors and significantly determines the design of all detectors. In the materials, the trajectory of heavy charged particles are not greatly affected, because they mostly interact with light atomic electrons. Other charged particles, such as the protons behave similarly with one exception – for lighter charged particles the ranges are somewhat longer.
A convenient variable that describes the ionization properties of surrounding medium is the stopping power. The classical expression that describes the specific energy loss is known as the Bethe formula. For alpha particles and heavier particles the stopping power of most materials is very high for heavy charged particles and these particles have very short ranges. For example, the range of a 5 MeV alpha particle is approximately only 0,002 cm in aluminium alloy. Most alpha particles can be stopped by an ordinary sheet of paper or living tissue.
Detectors of Alpha Radiation
Detectors may be also categorized according to sensitive materials and methods that can be utilized to make a measurement:
Detection of Alpha Radiation using Ionization Chamber
For alpha and beta particles to be detected by ionization chambers, they must be provided with a thin window. This “end-window” must be thin enough for the alpha and beta particles to penetrate. However, a window of almost any thickness will prevent an alpha particle from entering the chamber. The window is usually made of mica with a density of about 1.5 – 2.0 mg/cm2. But it does not mean, alpha radiation cannot be detected by an ionization chamber.
For example, in some kind of smoke detectors, you can meet man-made radionuclides such as americium-241, which is a source of alpha particles. The smoke detector has two ionization chambers, one open to the air, and a reference chamber which does not allow the entry of particles. The radioactive source emits alpha particles into both chambers, which ionizes some air molecules. The free-air chamber allows the entry of smoke particles to the sensitive volume and to change attenuation of alpha particles. If any smoke particles enter the free-air chamber, some of the ions will attach to the particles and not be available to carry the current in that chamber. An electronic circuit detects that a current difference has developed between the open and sealed chambers, and sounds the alarm.
Detection of Alpha Radiation using Geiger-Mueller Counter
Geiger counters are mainly used for portable instrumentation due to its sensitivity, simple counting circuit, and ability to detect low-level radiation. Although the major use of Geiger counters is probably in individual particle detection, they are also found in gamma survey meters. They are able to detect almost all types of radiation, but there are slight differences in the Geiger-Mueller tube. However, the Geiger-Müller tube produces a pulse output which is the same magnitude for all detected radiation, so a Geiger counter with an end window tube cannot distinguish between alpha and beta particles.
For alpha and beta particles to be detected by Geiger counters, they must be provided with a thin window. This “end-window” must be thin enough for the alpha and beta particles to penetrate. However, a window of almost any thickness will prevent an alpha particle from entering the chamber. The window is usually made of mica with a density of about 1.5 – 2.0 mg/cm2 to allow low-energy beta particles (e.g. from carbon-14) to enter the detector. The efficiency reduction for alpha is due to the attenuation effect of the end window, though distance from the surface being checked also has a significant effect, and ideally a source of alpha radiation should be less than 10mm from the detector due to attenuation in air.
Detection of Alpha using Scintillation Counter
Scintillation counters are used to measure radiation in a variety of applications including hand held radiation survey meters, personnel and environmental monitoring for radioactive contamination, medical imaging, radiometric assay, nuclear security and nuclear plant safety. They are widely used because they can be made inexpensively yet with good efficiency, and can measure both the intensity and the energy of incident radiation.
Scintillation counters can be used to detect alpha, beta, gamma radiation. They can be used also for detection of neutrons. For these purposes, different scintillators are used:
Alpha Particles and Heavy Ions. Due to the very high ionizing power of heavy ions, scintillation counters are usually not ideal for the detection of heavy ions. For equal energies, a proton will produce 1/4 to 1/2 the light of an electron, while alpha particles will produce only about 1/10 the light. Where needed, inorganic crystals, e.g. CsI(Tl), ZnS(Ag) (typically used in thin sheets as α-particle monitors), should be preferred to organic materials. Pure CsI is a fast and dense scintillating material with relatively low light yield that increases significantly with cooling. The drawbacks of CsI are a high temperature gradient and a slight hygroscopicity.
Detection of Alpha using Semiconductors – Silicon Strip Detectors
Silicon-based detectors are very good for tracking charged particles. A silicon strip detector is an arrangement of strip like shaped implants acting as charge collecting electrodes.
Silicon strip detectors 5 x 5 cm2 in area are quite common and are used in series (just like planes of MWPCs) to determine charged-particle trajectories to position-accuracies of the order of several μm in the transverse direction. Placed on a low doped fully depleted silicon wafer these implants form a one-dimensional array of diodes. By connecting each of the metalized strips to a charge sensitive amplifier a position sensitive detector is built. Two dimensional position measurements can be achieved by applying an additional strip like doping on the wafer backside by use of a double sided technology. Such devices can be used to measure small impact parameters and thereby determine whether some charged particle originated from a primary collision or was the decay product of a primary particle that traveled a small distance from the original interaction, and then decayed.