Fast neutrons are neutrons of kinetic energy greater than 1 MeV (~15 000 km/s). In nuclear reactors, these neutrons are usually named fission neutrons. The fission neutrons have a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution of energy with a mean energy (for 235U fission) 2 MeV. Inside a nuclear reactor the fast neutrons are slowed down to the thermal energies via a process called neutron moderation. These neutrons are also produced by nuclear processes such as nuclear fission or (ɑ,n) reactions.
In general, there are many detection principles and many types of detectors. But it must be added, fast neutron detection is very sophisticated discipline, since fast neutrons cross section are much smaller than in the energy range for slow neutrons. Fast neutrons are often detected by first moderating (slowing) them to thermal energies. However, during that process the information on the original energy of the neutron, its direction of travel, and the time of emission is lost.
Proton Recoil – Recoil Detectors
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.
Bonner Spheres Spectrometer
There are several methods for detecting slow neutrons, and few methods for detecting fast neutrons. Therefore, one technique for measuring fast neutrons is to convert them to slow
neutrons, and then measure the slow neutrons. One of possible methods is based on Bonner spheres. The method was first described in 1960 by Ewing and Tom W. Bonner and employs thermal neutron detectors (usually inorganic scintillators such as 6LiI) embedded in moderating spheres of different sizes. Bonner spheres have been used widely for the measurement of neutron spectra with neutron energies ranged from thermal up to at least 20 MeV. A Bonner sphere neutron spectrometer (BSS) consists of a thermal-neutron detector, a set polyethylene spherical shells and two optional lead shells of various sizes. In order to detect thermal neutrons a 3He detector or inorganic scintillators such as 6LiI can be used. LiGlass scintillators are very popular for detection of thermal neutrons. The advantage of LiGlass scintillators is their stability and their large range of sizes.
Detection of Neutrons using Scintillation Counter
Scintillation counters are used to measure radiation in a variety of applications including hand held radiation survey meters, personnel and environmental monitoring for radioactive contamination, medical imaging, radiometric assay, nuclear security and nuclear plant safety. They are widely used because they can be made inexpensively yet with good efficiency, and can measure both the intensity and the energy of incident radiation.
Scintillation counters can be used to detect alpha, beta, gamma radiation. They can be used also for detection of neutrons. For these purposes, different scintillators are used.
- Neutrons. 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.). Fast neutrons (>0.5 MeV) primarily rely on the recoil proton in (n,p) reactions. Materials rich in hydrogen, for example plastic scintillators, are therefore best suited for their detection. Thermal neutrons rely on nuclear reactions such as the (n,γ) or (n,α) reactions, to produce ionization. Materials such as LiI(Eu) or glass silicates are therefore particularly well-suited for the detection of thermal neutrons. The advantage of 6LiGlass scintillators is their stability and their large range of sizes.
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