Detection of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Neutron Radiation using Ionization Chamber

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 ionization chamber, also known as the ion chamber, is electrical device that detects various types of ionizing radiation. The voltage of detector is adjusted so that the conditions correspond to the ionization region. 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. The charge collected (output signal) is independent of the applied voltage and for single minimum-ionizing particles tends to be quite small and usually require special low-noise amplifiers for attaining efficient operating performance. Ionization chambers 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. This is due to the fact, there is no inherent amplification of signal in the operating medium and therefore these types of counters do not require much time to recover from large currents. In addition, because there is no amplification, they provide excellent energy resolution, which is limited primarily by electronic noise.

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.

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 Beta 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.

Ionization chamber may be, for example, used for the measurement of tritium in the air.  These devices are known as tritium-in-air monitors. Tritium is a radioactive isotope, but it emits a very weak form of radiation, a low-energy beta particle that is similar to an electron. It is a pure beta emitter (i.e. beta emitter without an accompanying gamma radiation). The electron’s kinetic energy varies, with an average of 5.7 keV, while the remaining energy is carried off by the nearly undetectable electron antineutrino. Such a very low energy of electron causes, that the electron cannot penetrate the skin or even does not travel very far in air. Beta particles from tritium can penetrate only about 6.0 mm of air. It is practically impossible to design a detector whose walls these beta particles can penetrate. Instead, tritium-in-air monitor pumps the tritium-contaminated air right through an ionization chamber, so that all of the energy of the beta particles can be usefully converted to producing ion pairs inside the chamber.

Detection of Gamma Radiation using Ionization Chamber

Gamma rays have very little trouble in penetrating the metal walls of the chamber. Therefore, ionization chambers may be used to detect gamma radiation and X-rays collectively known as photons, and for this the windowless tube is used. Ionization chambers have a good uniform response to radiation over a wide range of energies and are the preferred means of measuring high levels of gamma radiation. Some problems are caused by the fact, that alpha particles are more ionising than beta particles and than gamma rays, so more current is produced in the ionization chamber region by alpha than beta and gamma. Gamma rays deposit significantly lower amount of energy to the detector than other particles.

The efficiency of the chamber can be further increased by the use of a high pressure gas. Typically a pressure of 8-10 atmospheres can be used, and various noble gases are employed. For example, high-pressure xenon (HPXe) ionization chambers are ideal for use in uncontrolled environments, as a detector’s response has been shown to be uniform over large temperature ranges (20–170°C). The higher pressure results in a greater gas density and thereby a greater chance of collision with the fill gas and ion-pair creation by incident gamma radiation. Because of the increased wall thickness required to withstand this high pressure, only gamma radiation can be detected. These detectors are used in survey meters and for environmental monitoring.

Detection of Neutrons using Ionization Chamber

Since the neutrons are electrically neutral particles, they are mainly subject to strong nuclear forces but not to electric forces. Therefore neutrons are not directly ionizing and they have usually to be converted into charged particles before they can be detected. Generally every type of neutron detector must be equipped with converter (to convert neutron radiation to common detectable radiation) and one of the conventional radiation detectors (scintillation detector, gaseous detector, semiconductor detector, etc.).

Ionization chambers are often used as the charged particle detection device. For example, if the inner surface of the ionization chamber is coated with a thin coat of boron, the (n,alpha) reaction can take place. Most of (n,alpha) reactions of thermal neutrons are 10B(n,alpha)7Li reactions accompanied by 0.48 MeV gamma emission.

(n,alpha) reactions of 10B

Moreover, isotope boron-10 has high (n,alpha) reaction cross-section along the entire neutron energy spectrum. The alpha particle causes ionization within the chamber, and ejected electrons cause further secondary ionizations.

Another method for detecting neutrons using an ionization chamber is to use the gas boron trifluoride (BF3) instead of air in the chamber. The incoming neutrons produce alpha particles when they react with the boron atoms in the detector gas. Either method may be used to detect neutrons in nuclear reactor. It must be noted, BF3 counters are usually operated in the proportional region.

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:

Ionization Chamber