January 20, 2021

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Visualizing Ionizing Radiation With DIY Plastic Scintillators

Although most types of radiation are invisible, except for the visible part of the EM spectrum, there are many ways that we can make various types of radiation visible. One of these methods is called ‘scintillation’, which can be used to make ionizing radiation visible. Recently [Lukas Springer] demonstrated how to make scintillators out of what is essentially plastic: bisphenol-A (E45, ‘epoxy’) resin with hardener and other additives.

The essential principle of operation behind a scintillator is its sensitivity to ionizing radiation, along with the tendency to absorb the energy and re-emit it in the form of light, i.e. luminescence. This is akin to the luminescence of LEDs, except that in their case the underlying principle is that of electro-luminescence. In the case of a plastic scintillator, the scintillating material is suspended in the solid polymer matrix base.

As [Lukas] points out, plastic scintillators are hardly ideal when it comes to their sensitivity to ionizing radiation, but they compensate for this by being easy to shape and produce, while being very durable. For this experiment, he used regular epoxy as the scintillator matrix, p-Terphenyl as primary scintillator and Coumarin 102 as the wavelength shifter. These three compounds act as a reaction chain, with the matrix absorbing the radiation and transferring it to the primary scintillator, which in turns emits the energy as light.

As the primary scintillator tends to radiate in the deep UV part of the EM spectrum, a wavelength shifter (i.e. secondary scintillator) which ‘shifts’ the emitted UV radiation into the visible part of the spectrum.

After producing a batch of plastic scintillators following the above recipe, [Lukas] irradiated them with gamma radiation, and found them to perform worse than some already not remarkable Russian PS-based scintillators. [Lukas’s] guess is that the matrix may be absorbing the primary scintillator’s output, or a mismatch between the primary and second scintillator.

While tricky to get right, it does seem like a fun hobby if one has some interesting in chemistry. [Lukas] (@GigaBecquerel on Twitter) provides a basic recipe as well as many other compounds to use for the primary and secondary scintillator, as well as the matrix compound. Enough to get started with.