Gaseous Ionization Detector – Gas-Filled Detector

Detector of Ionizing Radiation - Geiger Tube
Detector of Ionizing Radiation – Geiger Tube

Gaseous ionization detectors are radiation detection instruments used in radiation protection applications to measure ionizing radiation, and also in particle physics to detect the presence of ionizing particles. These detectors are designed to measure the ionization produced when an incident particle traverses some medium, they are based on the ionising effect of radiation. For ionizing radiation to occur, the kinetic energy of particles (photons, electrons, etc.) of ionizing radiation is sufficient and the particle can ionize (to form ion by losing electrons) target atoms to form ions. Simply ionizing radiation can knock electrons from an atom.

The basic gaseous ionization detector consists of a chamber that is filled with a suitable medium (air or a special fill gas) that can be easily ionized. Most widely used types of these detectors are based on the effects produced when a charged particle passes through a gas. The operating medium:

  • should be chemically stable (or inert) so that the moving ionization electrons are not easily captured by the molecules of that medium
  • should have a low value of ionization potential (I) in order to maximize the amount of ionization produced per energy deposited by any incident particle.
  • should not be very sensitive to radiation damage so that its response to incident particles does not change markedly with use.

Typical gases used in detectors are argon and helium, although boron-triflouride (BF3) is utilized when the detector is to be used to measure neutrons. Gaseous ionization detectors are widely used in nuclear power plants, for the most part, to measure alpha and beta particles, neutrons, and gamma rays. The detectors operate in the ionization, proportional, and Geiger-Mueller regions with an arrangement most sensitive to the type of radiation being measured. Neutron detectors utilize ionization chambers or proportional counters of appropriate design. Compensated ion chambers, BF3 counters, fission counters, and proton recoil counters are examples of neutron detectors.

Basic Principle of Gaseous Ionization Detectors

Detector of Ionizing Radiation - basic scheme
Detectors of ionizing radiation consist of two parts that are usually connected. The first part consists of a sensitive material, consisting of a compound that experiences changes when exposed to radiation. The other component is a device that converts these changes into measurable signals.

The chamber has a cathode and an anode that are held at some large relative voltage, and the device is characterized by a capacitance that is determined by the geometry of the electrodes. As ionizing radiation enters the gas between the electrodes, a finite number of ion-pairs are formed. The behavior of the resultant ion-pairs is affected by the potential gradient of the electric field within the gas and the type and pressure of the fill gas. Under the influence of the electric field, the positive ions will move toward the negatively charged electrode (outer cylinder), and the negative ions (electrons) will migrate toward the positive electrode (central wire). The electric field in this region keeps the ions from recombining with the electrons. The collection of these ions will produce a charge on the electrodes and an electrical pulse across the detection circuit. In air, the average energy needed to produce an ion is about 34 eV, therefore a 1 MeV radiation completely absorbed in the detector produces about 3 x 104 pair of ions. However it is a small signal, this signal can be considerably amplified using standard electronics.

Operating Regions of Ionizing Detectors – Detector Voltage

The relationship between the applied voltage and pulse height in a detector is very complex. Pulse height and the number of ion pairs collected are directly related. As was written, the voltages can vary widely depending upon the detector geometry and the gas type and pressure. The figure schematically indicates the different voltage regions for alpha, beta and gamma rays. There are six main practical operating regions, where three (ionization, proportional and Geiger-Mueller region) are useful to detect ionizing radiation. These reqions are shown below. The alpha curve is higher than the beta and gamma curve from recombination region to part of limited proportionality region due to the larger number of ion pairs produced by the initial reaction of the incident radiation.

Gaseous Ionization Detectors - Regions
This diagram shows the number of ion pairs generated in the gas-filled detector, which varies according to the applied voltage for constant incident radiation. The voltages can vary widely depending upon the detector geometry and the gas type and pressure. This figure schematically indicates the different voltage regions for alpha, beta and gamma rays. There are six main practical operating regions, where three (ionization, proportional and Geiger-Mueller region) are useful to detect ionizing radiation. Alpha particles are more ionising than beta particles and than gamma rays, so more current is produced in the ion chamber region by alpha than beta and gamma, but the particles cannot be differentiated. More current is produced in the proportional counting region by alpha particles than beta, but by the nature of proportional counting it is possible to differentiate alpha, beta and gamma pulses. In the Geiger region, there is no differentiation of alpha and beta as any single ionisation event in the gas results in the same current output.


  • Recombination Region. At low voltage, the electric field is not large enough to accelerate electrons and ions. The electrons and ions can recombine soon after they are produced, and only a small fraction of the produced electrons and ions reach their respective electrodes. As the detector voltage is increased, however, an increasingly large fraction of the ions produced will reach the electrodes. This increase continues until the “saturation” voltage is attained. The range of operating voltage where this occurs is referred to as the recombination region. Detectors are not operated in this region, because neither the number of recombinations nor the number of ion-pairs initially produced can be determined accurately.
  • Ionization Region. In the ionization region, an increase in voltage does not cause a substantial increase in the number of ion-pairs collected. The number of ion-pairs collected by the electrodes is equal to the number of ion-pairs produced by the incident radiation, and is dependent on the type and energy of the particles or rays in the incident radiation. Therefore, in this region the curve is flat. The voltage must be higher than the point where dissociated ion-pairs can recombine. On the other hand, the voltage is not high enough to produce gas amplification (secondary ionization). Detectors in the ionization region operate at a low electric field strength, selected such that no gas multiplication takes place. Their current is independent of the applied voltage, and they are preferred for high radiation dose rates because they have no “dead time”, a phenomenon which affects the accuracy of the Geiger-Mueller tube at high dose rates.
  • Proportional Region. In the proportional region, the charge collected increases with a further increase in the detector voltage, while the number of primary ion-pairs remains unchanged. Increasing the voltage, provides the primary electrons with sufficient acceleration and energy so that they can ionize additional atoms of the medium. These secondary ions formed are also accelerated causing an effect known as Townsend avalanches, which creates a single large electrical pulse. Even though there is a large number of secondary ions (about 103 – 105) for each primary event, the chamber is always operated such that the number of secondary ions is proportional to the number of primary events. It is very important, because the primary ionization is dependent on the type and energy of the particles or rays in the intercepted radiation field. The number of ion pairs collected divided by the number of ion pairs produced by the primary ionization provides the gas amplification factor (denoted by A). The gas amplification that occurs in this region can increase the total amount of ionization to a measurable value. The process of charge amplification greatly improves the signal-to-noise ratio of the detector and reduces the subsequent electronic amplification required. When instruments are operated in the proportional region, the voltage must be kept constant. If a voltage remains constant the gas amplification factor also does not change. Proportional counter detection instruments are very sensitive to low levels of radiation. Moreover, proportional counters are capable of particle identification and energy measurement (spectroscopy). Different energies of radiation and different types of radiation can be distinguished by analyzing the pulse height, since they significantly differ in the primary ionization.
  • Limited Proportional Region. In the limited proportional region, the gas amplification factor does not continue to increase proportionally to the voltage. Additional ionizations and nonlinear effects causes, that there is no proportionality of the output signal to the deposited energy at a given applied voltage. The electric field in the chamber is distorted due to the high positive ion concentration. Free electrons are much lighter than the positive ions, thus, they are drawn toward the positive central electrode much faster than the positive ions are drawn to the chamber wall. The resulting cloud of positive ions near the electrode leads to distortions in gas multiplication. This region is usually avoided as a detection region.
  • Geiger-Mueller Region. In the Geiger-Mueller region, the voltage and thus  the electric field is so strong that secondary avalanches can occur. These avalanches can be triggered and propagated by photons emitted by atoms excited in the original avalanche. Since these photons are not affected by the electric field, they may interact far (e.g. laterally to the axis) from the primary avalanche, the entire Geiger tube is participating in the process. A strong signal (the amplification factor can reach about 1010) is produced by these avalanches with shape and height independently of the primary ionization and the energy of the detected photon.  Detectors, which are operated in the Geiger-Mueller region, are capable of detection of gamma rays, and also of all types of charged particles, that can enter the detector. These detectors are known as Geiger counters. Main advantage of these instruments is that they usually do not require any signal amplifiers. Since the positive ions do not move far from the avalanche region, a positively charged ion cloud disturbs the electric field and terminates the avalanche process. In practice the termination of the avalanche is improved by the use of “quenching” techniques. In contrast to proportional counters the energy or even incident radiation particle cannot not be distinguished by Geiger counters, since the output signal is independent of the amount and type of original ionization.
  • Discharge Region. Finally, at still higher voltages (above Geiger-Mueller region), the electric field generates a continuous discharge of the medium, with the chamber no longer being sensitive to any incident ionization. This region is not used for detection or measurement of ionizing radiation. If the Geiger tube voltage is increased above the end of the plateau the count rate begins to increase rapidly again, until the onset of continuous discharge where the tube cannot detect radiation, and may be damaged.

Types of Detectors of Ionizing Radiation

As a result, there are three basic types of gaseous ionization detectors, which are categorized according to the voltage applied to the detector:

  • ionization chambers,
  • proportional counters,
  • Geiger-Müller tubes.

As with other detectors, ionization chambers can be operated in current or pulse mode. In contrast, proportional counters or Geiger counters are almost always used in pulse mode. Detectors of ionizing radiation can be used both for activity measurements as well as for dose measurement. With knowledge about the energy needed to form an pair of ions – the dose can be obtained.


Radiation Protection:

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  2. Stabin, Michael G., Radiation Protection and Dosimetry: An Introduction to Health Physics, Springer, 10/2010. ISBN-13: 978-1441923912.
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Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

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