Instruments that register the presence of gamma (γ) radiation. Such detectors convert some or all of the energy of gamma radiation into an electrical signal. Most instruments are capable of detecting individual gamma-ray photons (or quanta), each of which produces a short (0.1– 5-microsecond) current pulse at the detector output. The output pulses may be made visible on an oscilloscope, made audible through a speaker (such as the familiar Geiger counter), or be electronically processed further, depending on the application. See Gamma rays, Oscilloscope
In common with most radiation detectors, gamma-ray detectors respond not to the radiation but to its secondary effects, in this case energetic electrons. Photons have neither mass nor charge and pass through matter rather easily. In so doing, they lose energy by (1) elastic scattering of electrons (Compton effect), (2) electron-positron (β+β-) pair production, and (3) at lower energies by photoabsorption. In these processes the energy of the photon is converted to the kinetic energy of the few electrons with which it interacts. Since electrons are much less penetrating than gamma-ray photons, their energy is largely trapped within the detector, where their ionizing effect creates a response convertible to an electrical output. In a gas-ionization device, such as a Geiger counter, this occurs by the production of ion-electron pairs and in a solid-state device, such as a germanium detector, by production of electron-hole pairs. In a scintillation device, for example, a sodium iodide (NaI) detector, the response is caused by the emission of optical photons from atoms excited by the passage of energetic electrons. See Compton effect, Electron-positron pair production, Ionization chamber, Scintillation counter
In accurate instruments the magnitude of the current pulse created by a single gamma-ray photon is closely proportional to the energy within the detector volume. However, gamma radiation is so penetrating that any particular event may involve only partial absorption of the photon. For example, a single Compton scattering may be followed by the escape of the scattered photon (now reduced in energy) from the detector, leaving behind only the energy of the scattered electron.
Gamma-ray detectors range from hand-held devices capable of giving some indication of the intensity of a radiation field to devices that accurately measure the energy and event time of individual photons reaching detectors assembled into a single complex instrument. These diverse detectors are widely used in industry, medicine, and research.