What is Alpha Dosimetry – Definition

Alpha dosimetry is very specific, because alpha particles travel only a few centimeters in air but deposit all their energies along their short paths. Personal Dosimeter

Alpha Particle - Interaction with MatterAlpha dosimetry is very specific, because alpha particles travel only a few centimeters in air but deposit all their energies along their short paths, thus the amount of energy transferred is very high. Alpha and beta particles, in general, constitute no external exposure hazard because the particles generally do not pass through skin. On the other hand, alpha radiation is very harmful, when alpha radionuclides are ingested or inhaled. Internal exposure is more dangerous than external exposure, since we are carrying the source of radiation inside our bodies and we cannot use any of radiation protection principles (time, distance, shielding).

Studies have shown that alpha and neutron radiation cause greater biological damage for a given energy deposition per kg of tissue than gamma radiation does. It was discovered, biological effects of any radiation increases with the linear energy transfer (LET). In short, the biological damage from high-LET radiation (alpha particlesprotons or neutrons) is much greater than that from low-LET radiation (gamma rays). This is because the living tissue can more easily repair damage from radiation that is spread over a large area than that which is concentrated in a small area. Because more biological damage is caused for the same physical dose (i.e., the same energy deposited per unit mass of tissue), one gray of alpha or neutron radiation is more harmful than one gray of gamma radiation. This fact that radiations of different types (and energies) give different biological effects for the same absorbed dose is described in terms of factors known as the relative biological effectiveness (RBE) and the radiation weighting factor (wR).

Radiation Weighting Factors – ICRP

For photon and electron radiation, the radiation weighting factor has the value 1 independently of the energy of the radiation and for alpha radiation the value 20. For neutron radiation, the value is energy-dependent and amounts to 5 to 20.

Radiation weighting factors
Source: ICRP, 2003. Relative Biological Effectiveness (RBE), Quality Factor (Q), and Radiation Weighting Factor (wR). ICRP Publication 92. Ann. ICRP 33 (4).

In 2007 ICRP published a new set of radiation weighting factors(ICRP Publ. 103: The 2007 Recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection). These factors are given below.

Radiation weighting factors - current - ICRP
Source: ICRP Publ. 103: The 2007 Recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection

As shown in the table, a wR of 1 is for all low-LET radiations, i.e. X-rays and gamma rays of all energies as well as electrons and muons. A smooth curve, considered an approximation, was fitted to the wRvalues as a function of incident neutron energy. Note that En is the neutron energy in MeV.

radiation weighting factor - neutrons - ICRP
The radiation weighting factor wR for neutrons introduced in Publication 60 (ICRP, 1991) as a discontinuous function of the neutron energy(- – -) and the proposed modification (—).

Thus for example, an absorbed dose of 1 Gy by alpha particles will lead to an equivalent dose of 20 Sv, and an equivalent dose of radiation is estimated to have the same biological effect as an equal amount of absorbed dose of gamma rays, which is given a weighting factor of 1.

Detectors of Alpha Radiation

Detectors may be also categorized according to sensitive materials and methods that can be utilized to make a measurement:

Detection of Alpha Radiation using Ionization Chamber

ionization chamber - basic principleFor alpha and beta particles to be detected by ionization chambers, they must be provided with a thin window. This “end-window” must be thin enough for the alpha and beta particles to penetrate. However, a window of almost any thickness will prevent an alpha particle from entering the chamber. The window is usually made of mica with a density of about 1.5 – 2.0 mg/cm2. But it does not mean, alpha radiation cannot be detected by an ionization chamber.

For example, in some kind of smoke detectors, you can meet man-made radionuclides such as americium-241, which is a source of alpha particles. The smoke detector has two ionization chambers, one open to the air, and a reference chamber which does not allow the entry of particles. The radioactive source emits alpha particles into both chambers, which ionizes some air molecules. The free-air chamber allows the entry of smoke particles to the sensitive volume and to change attenuation of alpha particles. If any smoke particles enter the free-air chamber, some of the ions will attach to the particles and not be available to carry the current in that chamber. An electronic circuit detects that a current difference has developed between the open and sealed chambers, and sounds the alarm.

Detection of Alpha Radiation using Geiger-Mueller Counter

Geiger counters are mainly used for portable instrumentation due to its sensitivity, simple counting circuit, and ability to detect low-level radiation. Although the major use of Geiger counters is probably in individual particle detection, they are also found in gamma survey meters. They are able to detect almost all types of radiation, but there are slight differences in the Geiger-Mueller tube. However, the Geiger-Müller tube produces a pulse output which is the same magnitude for all detected radiation, so a Geiger counter with an end window tube cannot distinguish between alpha and beta particles.

End-Window type

For alpha and beta particles to be detected by Geiger counters, they must be provided with a thin window. This “end-window” must be thin enough for the alpha and beta particles to penetrate. However, a window of almost any thickness will prevent an alpha particle from entering the chamber. The window is usually made of mica with a density of about 1.5 – 2.0 mg/cm2 to allow low-energy beta particles (e.g. from carbon-14) to enter the detector. The efficiency reduction for alpha is due to the attenuation effect of the end window, though distance from the surface being checked also has a significant effect, and ideally a source of alpha radiation should be less than 10mm from the detector due to attenuation in air.

Detection of Alpha 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:

Alpha Particles and Heavy Ions. Due to the very high ionizing power of heavy ions, scintillation counters are usually not ideal for the detection of heavy ions. For equal energies, a proton will produce 1/4 to 1/2 the light of an electron, while alpha particles will produce only about 1/10 the light. Where needed, inorganic crystals, e.g. CsI(Tl), ZnS(Ag) (typically used in thin sheets as α-particle monitors), should be preferred to organic materials. Pure CsI is a fast and dense scintillating material with relatively low light yield that increases significantly with cooling. The drawbacks of CsI are a high temperature gradient and a slight hygroscopicity.

Detection of Alpha using Semiconductors – Silicon Strip Detectors

silicon strip detector - semiconductors
Silicin Strip Detector Source: micronsemiconductor.co.uk

Silicon-based detectors are very good for tracking charged particles. A silicon strip detector is an arrangement of strip like shaped implants acting as charge collecting electrodes.

Silicon strip detectors 5 x 5 cm2 in area are quite common and are used in series (just like planes of MWPCs) to determine charged-particle trajectories to position-accuracies of the order of several μm in the transverse direction.  Placed on a low doped fully depleted silicon wafer these implants form a one-dimensional array of diodes. By connecting each of the metalized strips to a charge sensitive amplifier a position sensitive detector is built. Two dimensional position measurements can be achieved by applying an additional strip like doping on the wafer backside by use of a double sided technology.  Such devices can be used to measure small impact parameters and thereby determine whether some charged particle originated from a primary collision or was the decay product of a primary particle that traveled a small distance from the original interaction, and then decayed.

Portable Survey Meter

Portable survey meters are radiation detectors used by radiological technicians to measure ambient dose rate. These portable instruments usually have rate meters. In nuclear facilities, these portable survey meters are typically used by radiation protection technicians, which are responsible for following operations in the field to help assure that radiation protection policies are carried out and that jobs are implemented in accordance with the ALARA principle. Their responsibilities include:

  • Providing assistance and advice to workers to motivate them to adopt an ALARA behaviour.
  • Following jobs to ensure the respect of safety and radiation protection procedures.
  • In some plants, stopping work in case of serious deviation from dosimetric objectives, or when there is a significantly increasing radiological risk for workers.

The typical radiation survey meter is, for example, the RDS-31, which is a multi-purpose radiation survey meter that uses a G-M detector. It has optional alpha, beta, and gamma external probes. It measures 3.9 x 2.6 x 1.3 inches and can be handheld, or worn by pocket, belt clip, or pouch. It has a five-digit, backlit, LCD display. Geiger counters operate at such a high voltage that the size of the output pulse is always the same, regardless of how many ion pairs were created in the detector. Geiger counters are mainly used for portable instrumentation due to its sensitivity, simple counting circuit, and ability to detect low-level radiation.


Radiation Protection:

  1. Knoll, Glenn F., Radiation Detection and Measurement 4th Edition, Wiley, 8/2010. ISBN-13: 978-0470131480.
  2. Stabin, Michael G., Radiation Protection and Dosimetry: An Introduction to Health Physics, Springer, 10/2010. ISBN-13: 978-1441923912.
  3. Martin, James E., Physics for Radiation Protection 3rd Edition, Wiley-VCH, 4/2013. ISBN-13: 978-3527411764.
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, Instrumantation and Control. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 2 of 2. June 1992.

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

See also:

Personal Dosimetry

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