Neutron Detection by Scintillation of Noble-Gas Excimers
McComb, Jacob Collin
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Neutron detection is a technique essential to homeland security, nuclear reactor instrumentation, neutron diffraction science, oil-well logging, particle physics and radiation safety. The current shortage of helium-3, the neutron absorber used in most gas-filled proportional counters, has created a strong incentive to develop alternate methods of neutron detection. Excimer-based neutron detection (END) provides an alternative with many attractive properties. Like proportional counters, END relies on the conversion of a neutron into energetic charged particles, through an exothermic capture reaction with a neutron absorbing nucleus (<super>10</super>B, <super>6</super>Li,<super>3</super>He). As charged particles from these reactions lose energy in a surrounding gas, they cause electron excitation and ionization. Whereas most gas-filled detectors collect ionized charge to form a signal, END depends on the formation of diatomic noble-gas excimers (Ar<sub>2</sub><super>*</super>, Kr<sub>2</sub><super>*</super>, Xe<sub>2</sub><super>*</super>). Upon decaying, excimers emit far-ultraviolet (FUV) photons, which may be collected by a photomultiplier tube or other photon detector. This phenomenon provides a means of neutron detection with a number of advantages over traditional methods. This thesis investigates excimer scintillation yield from the heavy noble gases following the boron-neutron capture reaction in <super>10</super>B thin-film targets. Additionally, the thesis examines noble-gas excimer lifetimes with relationship to gas type and gas pressure. Experimental data were collected both at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Center for Neutron Research, and on a newly developed neutron beamline at the Maryland University Training Reactor. The components of the experiment were calibrated at NIST and the University of Maryland, using FUV synchrotron radiation, neutron imaging, and foil activation techniques, among others. Computer modeling was employed to simulate charged-particle transport and excimer photon emission within the experimental apparatus. The observed excimer scintillation yields from the <super>10</super>B(n,α)<super>7</super>Li reaction are comparable to the yields of many liquid and solid neutron scintillators. Additionally, the observed slow triplet-state decay of neutron-capture-induced excimers may be used in a practical detector to discriminate neutron interactions from gamma-ray interactions. The results of these measurements and simulations will contribute to the development and optimization of a deployable neutron detector based on noble-gas excimer scintillation.