There are many desired properties of scintillators, such as high density, fast operation speed, low cost, radiation hardness, production capability and durability of operational parameters. High density reduces the material size of showers for high-energy γ-quanta and electrons. The range of Compton scattered photons for lower energy γ-rays is also decreased via high density materials. This results in high segmentation of the detector and leads to better spatial resolution. Usually high density materials have heavy ions in the lattice (e.g., lead, cadmium), significantly increasing the photo-fraction (~Z4). The increased photo-fraction is important for some applications such as positron emission tomography. High stopping power for electromagnetic component of the ionizing radiation needs greater photo-fraction; this allows for a compact detector. High operating speed is needed for good resolution of spectra. Precision of time measurement with a scintillation detector is proportional to √τsc. Short decay times are important for the measurement of time intervals and for the operation in fast coincidence circuits. High density and fast response time can allow detection of rare events in particle physics. Particle energy deposited in the material of a scintillator is proportional to the scintillator’s response. Charged particles, γ-quanta and ions have different slopes when their response is measured. Thus, scintillators could be used to identify various types of γ-quanta and particles in fluxes of mixed radiation. Another consideration of scintillators is the cost of producing them. Most crystal scintillators require high-purity chemicals and sometimes rare-earth metals that are fairly expensive. Not only are the materials an expenditure, but many crystals require expensive furnaces and almost six months of growth and analyzing time. Currently, other scintillators are being researched for reduced production cost.
Several other properties are also desirable in a good detector scintillator: a low gamma output (i.e., a high efficiency for converting the energy of incident radiation into scintillation photons), transparency to its own scintillation light (for good light collection), efficient detection of the radiation being studied, a high stopping power, good linearity over a wide range of energy, a short rise time for fast timing applications (e.g., coincidence measurements), a short decay time to reduce detector dead-time and accommodate high event rates, emission in a spectral range matching the spectral sensitivity of existing PMTs (although wavelength shifters can sometimes be used), an index of refraction near that of glass (≈1.5) to allow optimum coupling to the PMT window. Ruggedness and good behavior under high temperature may be desirable where resistance to vibration and high temperature is necessary (e.g., oil exploration). The practical choice of a scintillator material is usually a compromise among those properties to best fit a given application.
Among the properties listed above, the light output is the most important, as it affects both the efficiency and the resolution of the detector (the efficiency is the ratio of detected particles to the total number of particles impinging upon the detector; the energy resolution is the ratio of the full width at half maximum of a given energy peak to the peak position, usually expressed in %). The light output is a strong function of the type of incident particle or photon and of its energy, which therefore strongly influences the type of scintillation material to be used for a particular application. The presence of quenching effects results in reduced light output (i.e., reduced scintillation efficiency). Quenching refers to all radiationless de‑excitation processes in which the excitation is degraded mainly to heat. The overall signal production efficiency of the detector, however, also depends on the quantum efficiency of the PMT (typically ~30% at peak), and on the efficiency of light transmission and collection (which depends on the type of reflector material covering the scintillator and light guides, the length/shape of the light guides, any light absorption, etc.). The light output is often quantified as a number of scintillation photons produced per keV of deposited energy. Typical numbers are (when the incident particle is an electron): ≈40 photons/keV for NaI(Tl), ~10 photons/keV for plastic scintillators, and ~8 photons/keV for bismuth germanate (BGO).
Scintillation detectors are generally assumed to be linear. This assumption is based on two requirements: (1) that the light output of the scintillator is proportional to the energy of the incident radiation; (2) that the electrical pulse produced by the photomultiplier tube is proportional to the emitted scintillation light. The linearity assumption is usually a good rough approximation, although deviations can occur (especially pronounced for particles heavier than the proton at low energies).
Resistance and good behavior under high-temperature, high-vibration environments is especially important for applications such as oil exploration (wireline logging, measurement while drilling). For most scintillators, light output and scintillation decay time depends on the temperature. This dependence can largely be ignored for room-temperature applications since it is usually weak. The dependence on the temperature is also weaker for organic scintillators than it is for inorganic crystals, such as NaI-Tl or BGO. Strong dependence of decay time on the temperature in BGO scintillator is used for remote monitoring of temperature in vacuum environment. The coupled PMTs also exhibit temperature sensitivity, and can be damaged if submitted to mechanical shock. Hence, high temperature rugged PMTs should be used for high-temperature, high-vibration applications.
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