A proportional counter, also known as the proportional detector, is an electrical device that detects various types of ionizing radiation. The voltage of detector is adjusted so that the conditions correspond to the proportional region. In this region, the voltage is high enough to provide the primary electrons with sufficient acceleration and energy so that they can ionize additional atoms of the medium. These secondary ions (gas amplification) formed are also accelerated causing an effect known as Townsend avalanches, which creates a single large electrical pulse. Gaseous proportional counters usually operate in high electric fields of the order of 10 kV/cm and achieve typical amplification factors of about 105. Since the amplification factor is strongly dependent on the applied voltage, the charge collected (output signal) is also dependent on the applied voltage and proportional counters require constant voltage.
Argon and helium are the most frequently used fill gases and allow for the detection of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. For neutron detection He-3 and BF3 (Boron Trifluoride) are the most commonly employed gases. For special purposes other mixtures of gases have been used, such as a tissue equivalent gas mixture consisting of 64.4% methane, 32.4% carbon dioxide and 3.2% nitrogen.
Quenching – Proportional Counters
In a proportional counter the fill gas of the chamber is an inert gas which is ionized by incident radiation, and a quench gas to ensure each pulse discharge terminates; a common mixture is 90% argon, 10% methane, known as P-10.
For each electron collected in the chamber, there is a positively charged gas ion left over. These gas ions are heavy compared to an electron and move much more slowly. 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. Eventually the positive ions move away from the positively charged central wire to the negatively charged wall and are neutralized by gaining an electron. In the process, some energy is given off, which causes additional ionization of the gas atoms. The electrons produced by this ionization move toward the central wire and are multiplied en route. This pulse of charge is unrelated to the radiation to be detected and can set off a series of pulses. In practice the termination of the avalanche is improved by the use of “quenching” techniques.
The quenching gas molecules have a weaker affinity for electrons than the chamber gas does; therefore, the ionized atoms of the chamber gas readily take electrons from the quenching gas molecules. Thus, the ionized molecules of quenching gas reach the chamber wall instead of the chamber gas. The ionized molecules of the quenching gas are neutralized by gaining an electron, and the energy liberated does not cause further ionization, but causes dissociation of the molecule.
Special Reference: U.S. Department of Energy, Instrumantation and Control. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 2 of 2. June 1992.
Detection of Neutrons using Proportional Counter
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.