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.
Advantages of Proportional Counters
- Amplification. 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. The high amplification factor of the proportional counter is the major advantage over the ionization chamber.
- Sensitivity. The process of charge amplification greatly improves the signal-to-noise ratio of the detector and reduces the subsequent electronic amplification required. Since the process of charge amplification greatly improves the signal-to-noise ratio of the detector, the subsequent electronic amplification is usually not required. Proportional counter detection instruments are very sensitive to low levels of radiation. Moreover, when measuring current output, a proportional detector is useful for dose rates
since the output signal is proportional to the energy deposited by ionization and
therefore proportional to the dose rate.
- Spectroscopy. By proper functional arrangements, modifications, and biasing, the proportional counter can be used to detect alpha, beta, gamma, or neutron radiation in mixed radiation fields. Moreover, proportional counters are capable of particle identification and energy measurement (spectroscopy). The pulse height reflects the energy deposited by the incident radiation in the detector gas. As such, it is possible to distinguish the larger pulses produced by alpha particles from the smaller pulses produced by beta particles or gamma rays.
Disadvantages of Proportional Counters
- Constant Voltage. 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. The main drawback to using proportional counters in portable instruments is that they require a very stable power supply and amplifier to ensure constant operating conditions (in the middle of the proportional region). This is difficult to provide in a portable instrument, and that is why proportional counters tend to be used more in fixed or lab instruments.
- Quenching. 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.
A scintillation counter or scintillation detector is a radiation detector which uses the effect known as scintillation. Scintillation is a flash of light produced in a transparent material by the passage of a particle (an electron, an alpha particle, an ion, or a high-energy photon). Scintillation occurs in the scintillator, which is a key part of a scintillation detector. In general, a scintillation detector consists of:
- Scintillator. A scintillator generates photons in response to incident radiation.
- Photodetector. A sensitive photodetector (usually a photomultiplier tube (PMT), a charge-coupled device (CCD) camera, or a photodiode), which converts the light to an electrical signal and electronics to process this signal.
The basic principle of operation involves the radiation reacting with a scintillator, which produces a series of flashes of varying intensity. The intensity of the flashes is proportional to the energy of the radiation. This feature is very important. These counters are suited to measure the energy of gamma radiation (gamma spectroscopy) and, therefore, can be used to identify gamma emitting isotopes.
Scintillation counters are widely used in radiation protection, assay of radioactive materials and physics research because they can be made inexpensively yet with good efficiency, and can measure both the intensity and the energy of incident radiation. Hospitals all over the world have gamma cameras based on the scintillation effect and, therefore, they are also called scintillation cameras.
Advantages and disadvantages of scintillation counters are determined by the scintillator. The following features are not general for all scintillators.
Advantages of Scintillation Detectors
- Efficiency. The advantages of a scintillation counter are its efficiency and the high precision and counting rates that are possible. These latter attributes are a consequence of the extremely short duration of the light flashes, from about 10-9 (organic scintillators) to 10-6 (inorganic scintillators) seconds.
- Spectroscopy. The intensity of the flashes and the amplitude of the output voltage pulse are proportional to the energy of the radiation. Therefore, scintillation counters can be used to determine the energy, as well as the number, of the exciting particles (or gamma photons). For gamma spectrometry, the most common detectors include sodium iodide (NaI) scintillation counters and high-purity germanium detectors. The NaI(Tl) scintillator has a higher energy resolution than a proportional counter, allowing for more accurate energy determinations. On the other hand, if a perfect energy resolution is required, we have to use germanium-based detector, such as the HPGe detector.
Disadvantages of Scintillation Detectors
- Hygroscopicity. A disadvantage of some inorganic crystals, e.g., NaI, is their hygroscopicity, a property which requires them to be housed in an airtight container to protect them from moisture.
- NaI(Tl) has no beta or alpha response and poor low energy gamma response.
- Liquid scintillators are relatively cumbersome.