Crystal Counter

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Crystal counter

A device, more correctly described as a crystal detector, that detects ionizing radiation of all types and is adaptable to measuring neutrons. The sensitive element is a single crystal with a dc resistance normally higher than 1012 ohms. The crystals are small and are cut or grown to volumes ranging from less than 1 mm3 to approximately 200 mm3.

Crystal detectors fall into two categories: Certain crystals act as thermoluminescent detectors, of which lithium fluoride (LiF), lithium borate (Li2B4O7), and calcium sulfate (CaSO4) are among the best known. Other crystals, for example, cadmium telluride (CdTe) and mercury iodide (HgI2), act as conduction detectors, delivering either pulses or a dc signal, depending upon the associated electronic circuitry. See Ionization chamber, Thermoluminescence

Diamond is a unique crystal that functions as a thermoluminescent detector or, if suitable contacts are made, as a conduction detector. The efficiency of the diamond detector in the thermoluminescent or conduction mode is strongly dependent on the impurity atoms included within the crystal lattice, with nitrogen and boron playing dominant roles. Not all diamonds are good detectors; only the rare and expensive natural types IB or IIA are appropriate. Besides being stable and nontoxic, diamond has an additional attractive feature as a detector. As an allotrope of carbon, it has the atomic number Z = 6. Human soft tissue has an effective Z = 7.4, so that diamond is a close tissue-equivalent material, an essential characteristic for biological dosimetry, for example, in measurements in living organisms.

Good crystal detectors are insulators and therefore have significant band-gap energies. A large band gap impedes the spontaneous excitation of charge carriers between the valence and conduction bands, thus lowering leakage currents and movement of charge carriers to trapping centers. Room temperature devices are consequently possible. See Band theory of solids, Electric insulator, Traps in solids

In thermoluminescent detectors, the crystal is heated at a controlled rate on a metal tray by means of an electric current. The photon emission from the crystal is monitored by a photomultiplier the output of which is directed toward an appropriate recording device. The result is a “glow curve,” the area of which correlates with the number of traps depopulated, which are in turn directly related to the radiation-field intensity. The integrated light output therefore becomes a direct measure of the total radiation dose.

In a conduction detector, a charged particle entering the crystal transfers its kinetic energy to the bulk of the crystal by creating charge carriers (electron-hole pairs). A photon of sufficient energy interacts with the crystal atoms, losing all or part of its energy through the photoelectric effect, the Compton effect, or pair production. In each of these processes, electrons are either liberated or created, and they in turn have their energy dissipated in the bulk of the crystal by creating charge carriers. When the carrier pair is created, the individual carriers move under the influence of the electric field toward the oppositely charged contacts. On arriving at the contacts, the charges can be measured at the output point either as a dc or as a pulse signal, depending upon the circuitry. It is, however, necessary for full efficiency of the counting system that both types of carriers are collected equally. See Compton effect, Electron-positron pair production, Gamma-ray detectors, Photoemission

In the thermoluminescent mode the crystals measure the total dose of the applied radiation, whereas in the conduction mode they measure the instantaneous dose rate; in both cases it is ultimately the crystal itself that limits the sensitivity and resolution of the system. Present methods of synthesis for crystals permit the detection of radiation fields down to nearly background values (0.1 microgray/h or 10-5 rad/h) even with crystals as small as 1 mm3. Small crystals make detectors possible that are capable of very high spatial resolution. This feature is important in electron radiation therapy. See Particle detector

Crystal Counter


an instrument used for the registration of ionizing radiation, the operation of which is based on the fact that such radiation causes the appearance of noticeable electric conductivity in a dielectric (usually diamond or cadmium sulfide, CdS) with two electrodes attached to its opposite faces. A potential difference is applied to the electrodes. The principle of operation for this arrangement is that of a solid-state ionization chamber. Charged particles passing through the crystal cause the ionization of the crystal. The free charge carriers formed as a result of the ionization, that is, conduction electrons and holes, move under the influence of the electric field to the appropriate electrodes. As a result, a current flows through the circuit of the crystal counter. The magnitude of the current is a measure of the flux intensity of the ionizing radiation.

A single ionizing particle generates a current pulse of short duration in the crystal counter circuit. After amplification, this pulse can be registered by a sealer or by an amplitude analyzer. The pulse amplitude is proportional to the energy of the particle if the path of the particle is smaller than the dimensions of the crystal.

A disadvantage of the crystal counter is the attendant polarization of the dielectric. Some of the charge carriers moving toward the electrodes are trapped by defects in the crystal lattice. An internal electric field is thus generated that grows stronger with the irradiation of the crystal and weakens the applied field. This leads to a decrease in the pulse amplitude and to a stoppage of the count. To counteract polarization, crystals can be heated, illuminated or subjected to an alternating field.

The simplicity of design of the crystal counter and its small size (several cu mm), as well as the ability of certain crystals, such as diamond, to work at high temperatures, make the crystal counter suitable for certain special uses (for example, in dosimetric devices). For measurements requiring an analysis of particle energy, superior properties are offered by another kind of solid-state ionization chamber called the semiconductor spectrometer.


Golovin, B. M., B. P. Osipenko, and A. I. Sidorev. “Gomogennye kristallicheskie schetchiki iadernykh izluchenii.” Pripory i tekhnika eksperimenta, 1961, no. 6, p. 5.
Dearnaley, G., and D. K. Northrop. Poluprovodnikovye schetchiki iadernykh izluchenii. Moscow, 1966. (Translated from English.)


crystal counter

[¦krist·əl ′kau̇nt·ər]
A particle detector in which the sensitive material is a dielectric (nonconducting) crystal mounted between two metallic electrodes.