Detection of neutrons is very specific, since the neutrons are electrically neutral particles, thus 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.).
One of basic types of neutron interactions with matter that are for this purpose available is:
- 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.
Proton Recoil – Recoil Detector
The most important type of detectors for fast neutrons are those which directly detect recoil particles, in particular recoil protons resulting from elastic (n, p) scattering. In fact, only hydrogen and helium nuclei are light enough for practical application. In the latter case the recoil particles are detected in a detector. Neutrons can transfer more energy to light nuclei. This method is appropriate for detecting fast neutrons allowing detection of fast neutrons without a moderator. This methods allows the energy of the neutron to be measured together with the neutron fluence, i.e. the detector can be used as a spectrometer. Typical fast neutron detectors are liquid scintillators, helium-4 based noble gas detectors and plastic detectors (scintillators). For example, the plastic has a high hydrogen content, therefore, it is useful for fast neutron detectors, when used as a scintillator.