Radioactivity detection using very simple ionization chamber and a single J-FET transistor

Today I will show a very simple ionization chamber that can detect radioactivity. I was able to detect with it ionizing radiation from a smoke detector (Am241 isotope). It's also immune to electromagnetic interference (EMI) due to a good shielding.

This device doesn't explicitly use any power supply. It's connected to a multimeter set to measure resistance, in this mode, the multimeter provides a small voltage to its probes (R=I/U, so to measure resistance, it has to put voltage across measured element). This is sufficient here, because basically we just need to polarise electrodes of the ionization chamber and nothing more. My multimeter provides 5.6V in this mode.

My setup is presented below, note that the sensor is this metal box, not the PCB visible on the image.

The chamber is made from copper plate soldered carefully to prevent any holes where electromagnetic fields could flow and disturb readings. Inside is one BF256B (n-channel J-FET) transistor, its gate is connected to one of ionization chamber plate made from a leg of a THT resistor, source pin is available externally, this is where "plus" probe of the DMM is connected, drain is connected to the metal case (that is both and electrode and is shielded against EMI).

ionization chamber circuit

I've used Keysight 34460A as a multimeter here, because it has histogram mode, that will be useful to look if the measured value is stable over time. PLC was set to 0.2, it will reduce accuracy, but will give much more samples.

Below two images present what is inside of the sensor (only JFET, as mentioned above) and the sensor mounted. The front was shielded using tin foil, that was secured tightly by insulation tape.

There are many movies on YouTube with people constructing ionization chambers, however, those aren't shielded completely and due to high wideband gain in those circuits, they will pick-up any electromagnetic radiation, so the results aren't very useful.

Those designs measures not only ionizing radiation, but also whole electromagnetic spectrum. Here I tried as a dummy test to place the a metal object to check if the measured value won't change, without a shielding it would probably be a big peak.

Time to show results. The resistance decreases when the amount of ionizing radiation increases, below you can see two peaks on the histogram, one on the left is when the sample (Am241 isotope) is present next to the sensor, on the right, when there is no sample.

ionization chamber results

I think, that it's a very interesting circuit, and can be used for example to understand how different shielding prevents radioactive radiation, etc. It's limited, but a good start to making own ionizing chambers.

Nuclear physic applied in smoke detectors

Not many people know, but in some smoke detectors, radioactive materials play an essential role. Today I will present one of those devices, and my -successful- attempt to reverse engineer it and get the circuit diagram.

Those smoke detectors use a small amount of Americium-241 (chemical symbol: Am) obtained in nuclear reactors as a decay product of Plutonium-241. Am241 emits mainly alpha particles, but also some gamma rays. In smoke detectors it is in a form of an oxide Am02.

When alpha particles collide with atoms in the air, as a result, ions are produced. The amount of those ions is measured by smoke detector and is quite stable over time (Am241 has half-life of 432 years), however, when the smoke is present, smoke particles neutralise alpha particles, so the measured value drops. This drop is the signal of fire, so the smoke detectors start buzzer to alert people in the building.

To measure those ions (produced by ionizing radiation), ionization chamber is used. It has a form of two differently charged plates shaped and placed in such distance that the ionizing radiation can flow between them.

Those plates, when charged, create an electric field that attracts those ions. When they are collected by plates, and additional voltage is created between plates, this voltage can be measured. The bigger this additional voltage, the bigger is the ionizing radiation.

When those smoke detectors are used as designed, they don't pose a radioactive hazard, however, if those devices are disassembled, it must be done with great care. Alpha particle sources (as used here) are very dangerous if they came into the lungs in a form of dust. They are also dangerous if digested.

On below image, you can see the ionization chamber. It's connected in the air directly to the pin of the chip to avoid parasitic currents flowing on the PCB. This is because voltages created by ionization chambers are very low. Radioactive element is inside of the ring.

To be honest, I think that the PCB could be routed much better - angles of traces should be 45° if possible.

As was visible on previous pictures, ionization chamber is soldered directly above the chip that runs this device. I wanted to know what is this chip, but didn't want to solder off the ionization chamber, that's why I reverse engineered this PCB into electronic circuit and later found an online datasheet of the chip that fits here. My works are visible below.

After searching, I have found RE46C120 datasheet, so now I was pretty sure it's this chip. Just to be sure, I checked on the oscilloscope, what signal is on the TP3 and how it looks on the datasheet - it's the same.

That's basically all for today, I wanted to share with you the idea of those pretty interesting devices.

Semiconductor Radioactivity Detector: Part I

Currently I'm trying to make a working version of a radioactivity detector that uses semiconductor as a sensor. It's a different approach than Geiger-Muller detectors or ionization chambers, more complicated, but also much more interesting.

While Geiger-Muller counters can only provide information about the amount of particles in a period of time, semiconductor detectors can also measure their energy, so it's possible to say much more about the nature of observed ionizing radiation. Some of the disadvantages of these detectors are that they are more expensive, complex and sensitivity may degrade over time.

The current version doesn't work, but I think it's so interesting concept that I've written this entry anyway.

semiconductor radioactivity detector

The idea is that when ionizing particle (alpha, beta or gamma) is blocked by the p-n junction, a small amount of the energy is released. It has a form of a current spike and can be observed by the next stages of the device.

The p-n junction is just a diode polarized reverse-biased. To make the working area of the p-n junction bigger, a photodiode is used. I know that there also exists specialized versions that are more sensitive, however, I couldn't find any in any online electronic shops.

In my design, the sensor is D1, it's polarized by R1, and C1, R2, L1 (those last three elements are making a low band filter to block noise from power supply, they should be as close to D1 as possible).

The first stage of an amplifier is based on a N-JFET to minimize current sink from the measured circuit, in addition, this type of transistors are extremely fast (that's why they are used widely in RF designs). To reduce parasitic currents between PCB traces, this part is mounted "in the air". EMI that could affect this stage are reduced by a small mass connected shield made from copper and aluminium tape.

Next two steps are high pass amplifiers. Since the signal is very small and those are not rail-to-rail opamps, a symmetrical power supply or virtual mass should be used. I've forgotten about that so lately I just used additional AA battery connected between negative power pin of the opamp and ground.

There are three outputs: raw, high/low (R10, R11, IC1C) and integrated over a period of time (IC1D, R12, R13, R14, C9, C10).

semiconductor radioactivity detector circuit

Below image shows the sensor, I've removed the protective glass from the photodiode to expose it better on the ionizing radiation.

The PCB looks like a nightmare because I've scratched some pads during multiple soldering and desoldering of elements, also some traces were cut and connected again, etc. It's a big blow of a mess now and I think that the story of this PCB is ended, soon I will design a new one based on the experience I've gained.

As I've said in the beginning of the article, the current version doesn't work - I can't observe anything except noise. This may be due to multiple problems. One of them is a proper shielding, tracks length, etc. It's a challenge to shield the device from EMI, but still make it sensitive to ionizing radiation.

Another problem is that I can test it only with alpha or beta particles, but they have big problems penetrating objects (are easily blocked), so it may be that they aren't even going to the pn junction, but are blocked by the case. This is something that is unclear to me at this moment.

I will continue working on this project and write a new article when I will make some progress.