The extent to which neutrons interact with nuclei is described in terms of quantities known as cross-sections. Cross-sections are used to express the likelihood of particular interaction between an incident neutron and a target nucleus. It must be noted this likelihood do not depend on real target dimensions. In conjunction with the neutron flux, it enables the calculation of the reaction rate, for example to derive the thermal power of a nuclear power plant. The standard unit for measuring the microscopic cross-section (σ-sigma) is the barn, which is equal to 10-28 m2. This unit is very small, therefore barns (abbreviated as “b”) are commonly used.
The cross-section σ can be interpreted as the effective ‘target area’ that a nucleus interacts with an incident neutron. The larger the effective area, the greater the probability for reaction. This cross-section is usually known as the microscopic cross-section.
The concept of the microscopic cross-section is therefore introduced to represent the probability of a neutron-nucleus reaction. Suppose that a thin ‘film’ of atoms (one atomic layer thick) with Na atoms/cm2 is placed in a monodirectional beam of intensity I0. Then the number of interactions C per cm2 per second will be proportional to the intensity I0 and the atom density Na. We define the proportionality factor as the microscopic cross-section σ:
σt = C/Na.I0
In order to be able to determine the microscopic cross section, transmission measurements are performed on plates of materials. Assume that if a neutron collides with a nucleus it will either be scattered into a different direction or be absorbed (without fission absorption). Assume that there are N (nuclei/cm3) of the material and there will then be N.dx per cm2 in the layer dx.
Only the neutrons that have not interacted will remain traveling in the x direction. This causes the intensity of the uncollided beam will be attenuated as it penetrates deeper into the material.
Then, according to the definition of the microscopic cross section, the reaction rate per unit area is Nσ Ι(x)dx. This is equal to the decrease of the beam intensity, so that:
-dI = N.σ.Ι(x).dx
Ι(x) = Ι0e-N.σ.x
It can be seen that whether a neutron will interact with a certain volume of material depends not only on the microscopic cross-section of the individual nuclei but also on the density of nuclei within that volume. It depends on the N.σ factor. This factor is therefore widely defined and it is known as the macroscopic cross section.
The difference between the microscopic and macroscopic cross sections is extremely important. The microscopic cross section represents the effective target area of a single nucleus, while the macroscopic cross section represents the effective target area of all of
the nuclei contained in certain volume.