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Neutron radiation is a kind of ionizing radiation which consists of free neutrons. A result of nuclear fission or nuclear fusion, it consists of the release of free neutrons from atoms, and these free neutrons react with nuclei of other atoms to form new isotopes, which, in turn, may produce radiation.
Neutrons may be emitted from nuclear fusion or nuclear fission, or from any number of different nuclear reactions such as from radioactive decay or reactions from particle interactions (such as from cosmic rays or particle accelerators). Large neutron sources are rare, and are usually limited to large-sized devices like nuclear reactors or particle accelerators (such as the Spallation Neutron Source).
Neutron radiation was discovered as a result of observing a beryllium nucleus reacting with an alpha particle thus transforming into a carbon nucleus and emitting a neutron, Be(α, n)C. The combination of an alpha particle emitter and an isotope with a large (α, n) nuclear reaction probability is still a common neutron source.
Cold, thermal and hot neutron radiation is most commonly used for scattering and diffraction experiments in order to assess the properties and the structure of materials in crystallography, condensed matter physics, biology, solid state chemistry, materials science, geology, mineralogy and related sciences. Neutron radiation is also used in select facilities to treat cancerous tumors due to its highly penetrating and damaging nature to cellular structure. Neutrons can also be used for imaging of industrial parts termed neutron radiography when using film, neutron radioscopy when taking a digital image, such as through image plates, and neutron tomography for three dimensional images. Neutron imaging is commonly used in the nuclear industry, the space and aerospace industry, as well as the high reliability explosives industry.
Ionization mechanisms and properties
Neutron radiation is often called indirectly ionizing radiation. It does not ionize atoms in the same way that charged particles such as protons and electrons do (exciting an electron), because neutrons have no charge. However, neutron interactions are largely ionizing, for example when neutron absorption results in gamma emission and the gamma ray (photon) subsequently removes an electron from an atom, or a nucleus recoiling from a neutron interaction is ionized and causes more traditional subsequent ionization in other atoms. Because neutrons are uncharged, they are more penetrating than alpha radiation or beta radiation. In some cases they are more penetrating than gamma radiation, which is impeded in materials of high atomic number. In materials of low atomic number such as hydrogen, a low energy gamma ray may be more penetrating than a high energy neutron.
Health hazards and protection
In health physics neutron radiation is considered a fourth radiation hazard alongside the other types of radiation. Another, sometimes more severe hazard of neutron radiation, is neutron activation, the ability of neutron radiation to induce radioactivity in most substances it encounters, including the body tissues of the workers themselves. This occurs through the capture of neutrons by atomic nuclei, which are transformed to another nuclide, frequently a radionuclide. This process accounts for much of the radioactive material released by the detonation of a nuclear weapon. It is also a problem in nuclear fission and nuclear fusion installations, as it gradually renders the equipment radioactive; eventually the hardware must be replaced and disposed of as low-level radioactive waste.
Neutron radiation protection relies on radiation shielding. Due to the high kinetic energy of neutrons, this radiation is considered to be the most severe and dangerous radiation to the whole body when exposed to external radiation sources. In comparison to conventional ionizing radiation based on photons or charged particles, neutrons are repeatedly bounced and slowed (absorbed) by light nuclei, so hydrogen-rich material is more effective than iron nuclei. The light atoms serve to slow down the neutrons by elastic scattering, so they can then be absorbed by nuclear reactions. However, gamma radiation is often produced in such reactions, so additional shielding has to be provided to absorb it. Care must be taken to avoid using nuclei which undergo fission or neutron capture that results in radioactive decay of nuclei that produce gamma rays.
Neutrons readily pass through most material, but interact enough to cause biological damage. The most effective shielding materials are hydrocarbons, e.g. polyethylene, paraffin wax or water. Concrete (where a considerable amount of water molecules are chemically bound to the cement) and gravel are used as cheap and effective biological shields due to their combined shielding of both gamma rays and neutrons. Boron is an excellent neutron absorber (and also undergoes some neutron scattering) which decays into carbon or helium and produces virtually no gamma radiation, with boron carbide a commonly used shield where concrete would be cost prohibitive. Commercially, tanks of water or fuel oil, concrete, gravel, and B4C are common shields that surround areas of large amounts of neutron flux, e.g. nuclear reactors. Boron-impregnated silica glass, high-boron steel, paraffin, and Plexiglas have niche uses.
Because the neutrons that strike the hydrogen nucleus (proton, or deuteron) impart energy to that nucleus, they in turn will break from their chemical bonds and travel a short distance before stopping. Such hydrogen nuclei are high linear energy transfer particles, and are in turn stopped by ionization of the material through which they travel. Consequently, in living tissue, neutrons have a relatively high relative biological effectiveness, and are roughly ten times more effective at causing biological damage compared to gamma or beta radiation of equivalent radiation exposure. Neutrons are particularly damaging to soft tissues like the cornea of the eye.
Effects on materials
Neutrons also degrade materials; bombardment of materials with neutrons creates collision cascades that can produce point defects and dislocations in the materials. At high neutron fluences this can lead to embrittlement of metals and other materials, and to swelling of some of them. This poses a problem for nuclear reactor vessels, and significantly limits their lifetime (which can be somewhat prolonged by controlled annealing of the vessel, reducing the number of the built-up dislocations). Graphite moderator blocks are especially susceptible to this effect, known as Wigner effect, and have to be annealed periodically; the well-known Windscale fire was caused by a mishap during such an annealing operation.
Neutron radiation and nuclear fission
The neutrons in reactors are generally categorized as slow (thermal) neutrons or fast neutrons depending on their energy. Thermal neutrons are similar to a gas in thermodynamic equilibrium but are easily captured by atomic nuclei and are the primary means by which elements undergo atomic transmutation.
In order to achieve an effective fission chain reaction, the neutrons produced during fission must be captured by fissionable nuclei, which then split, releasing more neutrons. In most fission reactor designs, the nuclear fuel is not sufficiently refined to be able to absorb enough fast neutrons to carry on the fission chain reaction, due to the lower cross section for higher-energy neutrons, so a neutron moderator must be introduced to slow the fast neutrons down to thermal velocities to permit sufficient absorption. Common neutron moderators include graphite, ordinary (light) water and heavy water. A few reactors (fast neutron reactors) and all nuclear weapons rely on fast neutrons. This requires certain changes in the design and in the required nuclear fuel. The element beryllium is particularly useful due to its ability to act as a neutron reflector or lens. This allows smaller quantities of fissile material to be used and is a primary technical development that led to the creation of neutron bombs.
Cosmogenic neutrons, neutrons produced from cosmic radiation in the Earth's atmosphere or surface, and those produced in particle accelerators can be significantly higher energy than those encountered in reactors. Most of them activate a nucleus before reaching the ground; a few react with nuclei in the air. The reactions with nitrogen-14 lead to the formation of carbon-14, widely used in radiocarbon dating.
- Neutron activation
- Neutron emission
- Neutron bomb
- Neutron flux
- Neutron diffraction and Neutron scattering
- Neutron Radiography