Detection and Measurement of Radioactivity

After reading this section you will be able to do the following:

  • Describe how we detect radioactivity/radiation and name the instrument that is used.
  • List some safety precautions and explain their importance.

Although some forms of electromagnetic energy, such as light and heat, can be detected by the human senses. One of the greatest draw backs to high energy radiation is the inability to detect it. We cannot see, feel, taste, smell, or hear the various forms of ionizing radiation. Fortunately, ionizing radiation interacts with matter which makes detection and measurement possible by utilizing specialized equipment. In this section we want to introduce you to the various ways and means of detecting and measuring ionizing radiation.

As mentioned previously, Becquerel discovered radioactivity because it left marks on photographic film as a means of detecting radiation. However, there are more definitive means commonly used by scientists and technicians who study and work with radiation. The equipment utilized for the detection and measurement of radiation commonly employs some type of a substance or material that responds to radiation. Many common methods use either an ionization process or molecular excitation process as a basis. Remember that we stated earlier that radiation interacts with matter. For detection and measurement purposes the process of ionization is the most commonly employed technique, based on the principle of charged particles producing ion pairs by direct interaction. These charged particles may collide with electrons, which removes them from their parent atoms, or transfer energy to an electron by interaction of electric fields.

How do you choose a detection device?

Important considerations for choosing a particular type of detection device include the application, the type of radiation, the energy of the radiation, and the level of sensitivity needed. Remember from previous discussion that radiation exists as waveforms with varying energies and may be either particulate or electromagnetic in nature.

The Electroscope

Marie Curie used an electroscope to study the radioactivity or Uranium ores. The electroscope is a fairly simple device comprised of a metal rod with two thin leaves attached to one end. If the electroscope is given a negative charge, the metal leaves will separate from each other. It is this characteristic that makes the electroscope useful as a detection device. A negatively charged electroscope will discharge when ions in the air remove electrons from it, and consequently, a positively charged electroscope will discharge when it takes electrons from the air around it. The rate of discharge of the electroscope is a measure of ions in the air and can be used as a basis of measurement and detection.

The Cloud Chamber

A unique device for detection and measurement is the Cloud Chamber, invented by the British physicist Charles Wilson in 1911. The Cloud chamber makes it possible to visually see the path of ionizing radiation thus making it possible to photograph it. The cloud chamber consists of a plastic or glass container, which sits on dry ice. A dark cloth is saturated with alcohol and placed around the inside of the container near the top. A small radioactive material may be suspended from the lid of the container. In the chamber, the alcohol evaporates from the cloth and condenses as it reaches the cold region created by the dry ice at the floor of the container. Just above the floor of the chamber there is a region where the alcohol vapor does not condense unless there are seeds around, so that drops of alcohol can form. This condition is similar to that of seeding clouds with a chemical to form rain. The idea is that only seeds available in the chamber are those of ions produced by the interaction with radiation. The resulting trail of alcohol droplets can be seen against the black background in the bottom of the chamber.

These are only a few of the devices commonly utilized for purposes of detection and measurement of radioactivity and radiation. It is important to understand that when working with radioactivity/radiation, due to our inability to sense radiation, we need them to assist us in detecting the presence of radiation and we also need them to help monitor the radiation.

Other Detection Devices

Image of an Geiger counter from around the 1960's

Another common device used for detection and measurement is the ionization chamber. The Geiger counter, survey meter, and personal dosimeters work on the basis of the ionization chamber. The principle operation of an ionization chamber is that it will produce an electric current in the presence of a radioactive source. Ionization chambers consist of tubes filled with gas, such as argon. When radiation enters the tube and interacts with the gas, it removes electrons from the gas. The gas atoms become positively charged ions, and the free electrons move through the gas to a wire in the tube, setting up a current. The current is commonly amplified and sent to a recording or counting device. This in response may produce a flash of light, ticking sounds, or an analog readout. Ionization chambers are capable of measuring the amount of radiation by means of measuring the amount of current produced.

Safety Precautions

Some of the principle safety precautions commonly used in working with radioactivity/radiation are time, distance, and shielding. Recall our earlier discussion of the dentist wanting to photograph your teeth. Have you ever wondered why the dentist lays a heavy apron across your chest? The dentist is practicing a means of protection from exposure. In that, they are using distance and shielding from the source of radiation. The concepts of these three principles are fairly simple. The first principle is time. The less time you spend around a radioactive material the less exposure you will receive. The second principle states that the greater the distance away from a radioactive source the lesser your exposure to the radiation. Lastly, if you can protect yourself with some type of material to act as a shielding device you will also reduce your overall exposure.


  1. Devices that measure ionization are the most commonly used instruments for detecting radiation.
  2. Three important words to help you minimize your exposure to radiation are time, distance, and shielding.