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.).
Proportional counters are often used as the charged particle detection device. In nuclear power plants, gas-filled (BF3) proportional counters are normally used as source range detectors. These detectors 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. Most of (n,alpha) reactions of thermal neutrons are 10B(n,alpha)7Li reactions accompanied by 0.48 MeV gamma emission.
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.
Proportional counter output is in the form of one pulse for every ionizing event; therefore, there is a series of random pulses varying in magnitude representing neutron and gamma ionizing events. The pulse height may only be a few millivolts, which is too low to be directly used without amplification. The discriminator excludes passage of pulses that are less than a predetermined level. The function of the discriminator is to exclude noise and gamma pulses that are lower in magnitude than neutron pulses.