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Scintillators as Gamma-ray Detectors

A popular method for the detection of gamma rays involves the use of crystal scintillators. A scintillator is a material that emits low-energy photons (usually in the visible range) when they are struck by a high-energy charged particle. When used as a gamma-ray detector, the scintillator does not directly detect the gamma-rays. Instead, the gamma-rays produce charged particles in the scintillator crystals, which interact with the crystal and emit photons. These lower-energy photons are subsequently collected by photomultiplier tubes (PMTs).

When gamma-rays pass through matter, they can undergo one of three basic processes: Compton scattering, photoabsorption, or pair production. Each of these processes can create high-energy electrons or anti-electrons (positrons) that interact in the scintillator as charged particles. By adding up the energy collected in the surrounding photomultiplier tubes, the energy of the detected gamma-ray can be determined.

Scintillators can be made of a variety of materials, depending on the intended applications. The most common scintillators used in gamma-ray detectors are made of inorganic materials, and are usually an alkali halide salt, such as sodium iodide (NaI) or cesium iodide (CsI). To help these materials do their job, an impurity, called an "activator," is often added. Thallium and sodium are often used for this purpose, so detectors are usually described as NaI(Tl), which means it is a sodium iodide crystal with a thallium activator, or as CsI(Na), which is a cesium iodide crystal with a sodium activator.

Inorganic scintillators have been used as gamma-ray detectors aboard many space-based missions to observe sources of cosmic gamma rays. These missions include: the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory (CGRO), the first High Energy Astrophysical Observatory (HEAO-1), and the Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer (RXTE). The Fermi Gamma-Ray Burst Monitor uses 12 NaI scintillators and 2 bismuth germanate (BGO) detectors to monitor the entire sky and is sensitive to gamma-rays between a few keV and 25 MeV.

Last Modified: November 2010

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