Basic Principle of Geiger Counters – Description

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

The Geiger counter, also known as the Geiger-Mueller counter, is electrical device that detects various types of ionizing radiation. This device is named after the two physicists who invented the counter in 1928. Mueller was a student of Hans Geiger.  Geiger counter is widely used in applications such as radiation dosimetry, radiological protection, experimental physics, and the nuclear industry. A Geiger counter consists of a Geiger-Müller tube (the sensing element which detects the radiation) and the processing electronics, which displays the result.

Geiger counter can detect ionizing radiation such as alpha and beta particlesneutrons, and gamma rays using the ionization effect produced in a Geiger–Müller tube, which gives its name to the instrument. The voltage of detector is adjusted so that the conditions correspond to the Geiger-Mueller region.

Basic Principle of Geiger Counters

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 Geiger counter has a cathode and an anode that are held at high voltage, and the device is characterized by a capacitance that is determined by the geometry of the electrodes. In a Geiger counter the fill gas of the chamber is an inert gas which is ionized by incident radiation, and a quench gas of 5–10% of an organic vapor or a halogen gas to prevent spurious pulsing by quenching the electron avalanches.

As ionizing radiation enters the gas between the electrodes, a finite number of ion-pairs are formed. 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. 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. In the immediate vicinity of the anode wire, the field strength becomes large enough to produce Townsend avalanches. 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. The high amplification factor of the Geiger counter is the major advantage over the ionization chamber. Geiger counter is therefore a much more sensitive device than other chambers. It is often used in the detection of low-level gamma rays and beta particles for this reason.

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.

The collection of all these electrons will produce a charge on the electrodes and an electrical pulse across the detection circuit.  Each pulse corresponds to one gamma ray or neutron interaction. The pulse height is not proportional to the number of original electrons produced. Therefore, Geiger counters are not capable of particle identification and energy measurement (spectroscopy). Since the process of charge amplification greatly improves the signal-to-noise ratio of the detector, the subsequent electronic amplification is usually not required.

References:

Radiation Protection:

  1. Knoll, Glenn F., Radiation Detection and Measurement 4th Edition, Wiley, 8/2010. ISBN-13: 978-0470131480.
  2. Stabin, Michael G., Radiation Protection and Dosimetry: An Introduction to Health Physics, Springer, 10/2010. ISBN-13: 978-1441923912.
  3. Martin, James E., Physics for Radiation Protection 3rd Edition, Wiley-VCH, 4/2013. ISBN-13: 978-3527411764.
  4. U.S.NRC, NUCLEAR REACTOR CONCEPTS
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, Instrumantation and Control. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 2 of 2. June 1992.

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.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

See above:

Geiger Counter