scintillation counters

Scintillation counter

A scintillation counter measures ionizing radiation. The sensor, called a scintillator, consists of a transparent crystal, usually phosphor, plastic (usually containing anthracene), or organic liquid (see liquid scintillation counting) that fluoresces when struck by ionizing radiation. A sensitive photomultiplier tube (PMT) measures the light from the crystal. The PMT is attached to an electronic amplifier and other electronic equipment to count and possibly quantify the amplitude of the signals produced by the photomultiplier.

The scintillation counter is based on the work of Antoine Henri Becquerel, who discovered the phosphorescence of certain uranium salts. Scintillation counters are widely used because they can be made inexpensively yet with good quantum efficiency. The quantum efficiency of a gamma-ray detector (per unit volume) depends upon the density of electrons in the detector, and certain scintillating materials, such as sodium iodide and bismuth germanate, achieve high electron densities as a result of the high atomic numbers of some of the elements of which they are composed. However, detectors based on semiconductors, notably hyperpure germanium, have better intrinsic energy resolution than scintillators, and are preferred where feasible for gamma-ray spectrometry. In the case of neutron detectors, high efficiency is gained through the use of scintillating materials rich in hydrogen that scatter neutrons efficiently. Liquid scintillation counters are an efficient and practical means of quantifying beta radiation.

Scintillation Counter Apparatus

When a charged particle strikes the scintillator, a flash of light is produced, which may or may not be in the visible region of the spectrum. Each charged particle produces a flash. If a flash is produced in a visible region, they can be observed through microscope and counted - an impractical method. The association of a scintillator and photomultipier with the counter circuits forms the basis of the scintillation counter apparatus. When a charged particle passes through the phosphor, some of its atoms get excited and emit photons. The intensity of the light flash depends on the energy of the charged particles. Caesium iodide (CsI) in crystalline form is used as the scintillator for the detection of protons and alpha particles; sodium iodide (NaI) containing a small amount of thallium is used as scintillator for the detection of gamma waves.

The scintillation counter has a layer of phosphor cemented in one of the end of the photomultiplier. Its inner surface is coated with photo-emitter with less work potential. This photoelectric emitter is called as photocathode and is connected to the negative terminal of a high tension battery. A number of anodes called dynodes are arranged in the tube at increasing positive potential. When a charged particle strikes the phosphor, a photon is emitted. This photon strikes the photocathode in the photomultipier, releasing an electron. This electron accelerates towards the first dynode and hits it. Multiple secondary electrons are emitted, which accelerate towards the second dynode. More electrons are emitted and the chain continues, multiplying the effect of the first charged particle. By the time the electrons reach the last dynode, enough have been released to send a voltage pulse across the external resistors. This voltage pulse is amplified and recorded by the electronic counter.

Scintillation counter as a spectrometer

Scintillators often convert a single photon of high energy radiation into high number of lower-energy photons, where the number of photons per megaelectronvolt of input energy is fairly constant. By measuring the intensity of the flash (the number of the photons produced by the x-ray or gamma photon) it is therefore possible to discern the original photon's energy.

The spectrometer consists of a suitable scintillator crystal, a photomultiplier tube, and a circuit for measuring the height of the pulses produced by the photomultiplier. The pulses are counted and sorted by their height, producing a x-y plot of scintillator flash brightness vs number of the flashes, which approximates the energy spectrum of the incident radiation, with some additional artifacts. A monochromatic gamma radiation produces a photopeak at its energy. The detector also shows response at the lower energies, caused by Compton scattering, two smaller escape peaks at energies 0.511 and 1.022 MeV below the photopeak for the creation of electron-positron pairs when one or both annihilation photons escape, and a backscatter peak. Higher energies can be measured when two or more photons strike the detector almost simultaneously (pile-up, within the time resolution of the DAQ chain), appearing as sum peaks with energies up to the value of two or more photopeaks added. See


  • Knoll, Glenn (1999). Radiation Detection and Measurement. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0-471-07338-5.

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