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New Neutron Detector Makes R&D Top 100

The Lyman alpha radiation detector, shown here in prototype, could dramatically improve performance in key applications.

The Lyman alpha radiation detector, shown here in prototype, could dramatically improve performance in key applications.

A new ultrasensitive, high-bandwidth neutron detector, developed by JQI Fellow Charles Clark and colleagues from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland (UMD), has won a 2008 “R&D 100 Award.” The annual R&D 100 Award program recognizes “the 100 most technologically significant products introduced into the market “ during the previous year, as selected by an independent judging panel and the editors of R&D Magazine.

Neutron detectors are important in a variety of applications, ranging from fundamental physics experiments to materials science, oil well logging, monitoring of special nuclear materials, and personal protective equipment for first responders. Present neutron detector technology is based on proportional counters, in which high-voltage electical discharges are initiated by neutron absorption in a gas cell.

The NIST Lyman alpha neutron detector (LAND), on the other hand, detects neutrons by sensing “Lyman alpha” radiation -- in the far ultraviolet region of th optical spectrum, at a wavelength of 122 nm --that is produced following neutron absorption by helium-3 (3He) gas.

The LAND technique offers significant advantages over proportional counters. For example, optical emissions are faster than electrical discharges, thus yielding a detector with intrinsically higher bandwith; and LAND demonstrates single-neutron sensitivity, which has never been possible with proportional counters. In addition, LAND seems less susceptible to spurious neutron reports triggered by gamma rays.

NIST has filed a U.S. patent application on the LAND technology. A scientific paper on LAND principles was published in the peer-reviewed NIST Journal of Research in April 2008. The LAND development team recognized by the R&D 100 Award consists of: Alan K. Thompson and Muhammad Arif of the NIST Ionizing Radiation Division, Robert E. Vest and Charles W. Clark of the NIST Electron and Optical Physics Division, and Michael A. Coplan of UMD’s Institute for Physical Science and Technology. Critical support for this project was provided by unique NIST calibration facilities for neutron and far ultraviolet radiation, respectively the NIST Center for Neutron Research, and the SURF III Synchrotron Ultraviolet Radiation Facility.