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.).
Two basic types of neutron interactions with matter are for this purpose available:
- Elastic scattering. The free neutron can be scattered by a nucleus, transferring some of its kinetic energy to the nucleus. If the neutron has enough energy to scatter off nuclei the recoiling nucleus ionizes the material surrounding the converter. In fact, only hydrogen and helium nuclei are light enough for practical application. Charge produced in this way can be collected by the conventional detector to produce a detected signal. Neutrons can transfer more energy to light nuclei. This method is appropriate for detecting fast neutrons (fast neutrons do not have high cross-section for absorption) allowing detection of fast neutrons without a moderator.
- Neutron absorption. This is a common method allowing detection of neutrons of entire energy spectrum. This method is is based on variety of absorption reactions (radiation capture, nuclear fission, rearrangement reactions, etc.). The neutron is here absorbed by target material (converter) emitting secondary particles such as protons, alpha particles, beta particles, photons (gamma rays) or fission fragments. Some reactions are threshold reactions (requiring a minimum energy of neutrons), but most of reactions occurs at epithermal and thermal energies. That means the moderation of fast neutrons is required leading in poor energy information of the neutrons. Most common nuclei for the neutron converter material are:
- 10B(n,α). Where the neutron capture cross-section for thermal neutrons is σ = 3820 barns and the natural boron has abundance of 10B 19,8%.
- 3He(n,p). Where the neutron capture cross-section for thermal neutrons is σ = 5350 barns and the natural helium has abundance of 3He 0.014%.
- 6Li(n,α). Where the neutron capture cross-section for thermal neutrons is σ = 925 barns and the natural lithium has abundance of 6Li 7,4%.
- 113Cd(n,ɣ). Where the neutron capture cross-section for thermal neutrons is σ = 20820 barns and the natural cadmium has abundance of 113Cd 12,2%.
- 235U(n,fission). Where the fission cross-section for thermal neutrons is σ = 585 barns and the natural uranium has abundance of 235U 0.711%. Uranium as a converter produces fission fragments which are heavy charged particles. This have significant advantage. The heavy charged particles (fission fragments) create a high output signal, because the fragments deposit a large amount of energy in a detector sensitive volume. This allows an easy discrimination of the background radiation (e.i. gamma radiation). This important feature can be used for example in a nuclear reactor power measurement, where the neutron field is accompanied by a significant gamma background.