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Applied: Photon Assisted Neutron Detector (PhAND)


Neutron detectors based on UV scintillations in xenon gas are under development for a variety of applications. The scintillations are produced with high efficiency by the charged particle products of the neutron capture reaction 10B(n, 𝜶)7Li. Silicon photomultipliers (SiPMs) detect the UV scintillation events that signal a neutron capture event. The Photon Assisted Neutron Detectors (PhAND) are mechanically robust, operate with low input voltages, are scalable, and can be configured in a range of sizes and geometries. Applications include cold neutron detection at the NG-6A beamline at the NIST Center for Neutron Research, neutron detection inside a water phantom at the Maryland Proton Treatment Center, and the reconstruction of neutron source energy spectra with source location.


incident neutrons

Figure 1. Incident neutrons are absorbed in the 10B(n, 𝜶)7Li reaction. The daughter particles travel out of the boron thin film into a gas volume where they excite xenon to form a short-lived excimer state which releases a far ultraviolet photon upon relaxation. The photon is detected by a silicon photomultiplier. Multiple films are used to create an optical cavity for higher photon detection efficiency. The number of photons produced is a function of the energy deposited by the ⍺ and 7Li which is calculated to be between 103 to 104 photons for a 1 μm boron film.

Due to the simplicity of the PhAND physics package, any number of detector configurations can be deployed. Basic detector operation is illustrated in Fig. 1. Incident neutrons are absorbed in a 10B film and the charged daughter products (𝜶 7Li) enter the surrounding xenon where they produce xenon excimers with high efficiency. Upon decay, the excimer emits far ultraviolet (FUV) radiation centered at 175 nm. The 10B film is electron-beam vapor deposited on thin silicon and aluminum substrates. Film thickness of 1 μm is a compromise between neutron absorption rate and charged particle escape from the film into the xenon gas. On average 103 to 104 FUV photons are produced for every neutron captured in the 10B film. The photons are collected by SiPMs immersed in the gas surrounding the 10B films.

The detectors are mechanically robust, operate with low input voltages, and can be configured in a range of sizes and geometries. Each detector is connected to an electronics processing box that is powered and controlled by USB connection to a computer. A cold neutron beam flux monitor is in operation at the NG-6A beamline with a single planar 10B film. A single film configuration is ideal for beam monitoring while a configuration with 16 films has been used for full beam attenuation. Detection efficiency is directly linked to the number of films used, however the efficiency of detecting an absorbed neutron has been measured to be as high as 75%. Fig. 2 shows a detector with a 10B film deposited on a cylindrical substrate enclosed in a submersible capsule filled with xenon. This detector was used to investigate neutron production in the water phantom at the Maryland Proton Treatment Center.

neutron detector
Figure 2. Submersible neutron detector used in the water phantom at the Maryland Proton Treatment Center. This detector uses a cylindrical boron film from a rolled substrate. The hermetic coaxial connector at top supplies power to the silicon photomultiplier and connects its output to external electronics.
four-unit neutron detector
Figure 3. Four-unit neutron detector interior.  Attachments in front of each unit are used to modify their response as a function of incident neutron direction and energy. This style of detector can be used along with machine learning to reconstruct neutron source energy spectra, and an array of such detectors can be used to locate subsurface water on the moon.

Currently, detectors are under development for neutron source energy spectrum reconstruction with spatial determination. In this work an array of detectors with different attachments of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and cadmium makes simultaneous measurements of the neutron field. The attachments modify the detector response for each array element in well-determined ways according to the energy and incoming direction of the detected neutrons. The output of the array provides input into machine learning algorithms that extract neutron energy and spatial information. A four-element array shown in Fig. 3. It consists of four separate 10B film/SiPM units in a common xenon volume and is one element of a larger array. This array is under development for the location of subsurface water on the Moon through the detection of spallation neutrons diffusing through the lunar surface. This detector, with a sufficiently advanced neural network and sufficient training data, can be used for neutron source material identification. Current work at the Low Scatter Neutron Calibration Facility with a collimated 252Cf source is providing the necessary training data.

Created April 9, 2021