Principles of Modern Physics
Laboratory session #9
Gamma Spectroscopy: Pre-Lab
Answer the following questions PRIOR to coming to your lab section. You will not be allowed to participate in any data-collection until you have shown me your pre-lab and I have
initialed it. Please tape or staple the pre-lab on the page opposite to the first page of your write-
up; failure to do so will result in losing two points (out of a possible 20). Show all your work.
1. What is the main distinction between the Geiger-Müller tube you used in the last two labs and
the scintillation detector you will use in this lab?
2. What is the natural linewidth (in MeV) of the 0.662 MeV gamma ray emitted by Ba-137? Hint: You know that the half-life of Ba-137 is 153 s from last week’s lab. You will need to use
the energy-time uncertainty principle.
3. Consider the interaction between a 0.662 MeV gamma ray and an electron in your scintillation
detector. What is the maximum energy that can be transferred to the electron (in MeV) from the gamma ray via Compton scattering? Hint: You will need the Compton equation.
Physics 160 Laboratory
Session 9: Gamma Spectroscopy 2
Principles of Modern Physics
Laboratory session #9
? To become familiar with the detection of gamma rays using a scintillation-
photomultiplier tube detector and with the pulse height analysis technique for
determining gamma ray energies. To understand the origin and location of the Compton
edge and the backscatter peak in the pulse height spectrum.
? To calibrate the energy scale of the pulse height analyzer and use that calibration to
measure the gamma ray energies of a number of other samples.
So far this term we have used two different kinds of spectroscopy. We used photon emission
spectroscopy to observe the energy levels of the hydrogen atom and electron-impact
spectroscopy to observe those of the helium atom. We have seen that atoms emit discrete spectra
due to the quantized nature of their energy levels, and that different atoms display different
spectra. Quantum mechanics predicts that the energy states of nuclei are also quantized, and that
spontaneous emission from nuclei of a particular radioactive isotope should therefore exhibit a
characteristic spectrum of discrete energies. When photons are emitted in this process they are
called gamma rays, and the technique of measuring and characterizing the discrete energy
spectrum of gamma rays is known as gamma spectroscopy. While in essence similar to our
previous spectroscopic experiments, gamma spectroscopy involves much higher energies, which
require specialized apparatus for their detection. This week we will become familiar with the use
of a scintillation detector and pulse height (or multichannel) analyzer for use as a gamma ray
The principle component in the scintillation detector is a sodium iodide crystal (NaI). When a
gamma ray from a radioactive sample enters the crystal, some combination of three physical
processes can occur: 1) photoelectric emission of an electron that absorbs all of the gamma’s
energy, 2) Compton scattering of the gamma ray photon off electrons in the crystal. or 3) pair-
production of an electron–positron pair. In order for the last process to occur with any likelihood,
the incoming gamma must have an energy that is at least twice the rest mass energy of the
electron (2 X 0.511 MeV = 1.022 MeV). Although a couple of the samples you will use today
emit gammas in this range, unless the gamma is substantially more energetic than 1.022 MeV,
the pair-production mechanism is not observable. The electron liberated by the photoelectric
effect is quite likely to scatter around in the NaI crystal, losing energy, until it is captured by an
atom in the crystal with an electron vacancy. In the process of scattering, photons in the visible
and UV region of the spectrum are emitted. Likewise with the Compton scattering process, the
recoil electron will ultimately deliver most of its energy as visible and UV photons. The
difference between the photoelectric and the Compton scattering process is that the former
Physics 160 Laboratory
Session 9: Gamma Spectroscopy 3
process is likely to deposit all or nearly all of the incoming gamma energy it the crystal, while in
the latter process, the scattered gamma ray photon may escape the scintillator crystal and
therefore deposit only a fraction of its total energy in the crystal. The low frequency (visible
and UV) photons produced when a gamma interacts with the scintillator crystal, enter a
photomultiplier tube (PMT), in which a cascade of electrons is generated, again via the
photoelectric (and secondary electron) effect. This has the effect of turning a light pulse into a
current pulse, which is then converted into a voltage pulse. In general, the more energy the
original gamma ray had, the larger the voltage pulse that the PMT will produce. The pulse
height analyzer (PHA) divides the range of all possible voltages into bins, or channels, and keeps
a running count of how many pulses arrive in each bin, thus producing a histogram of the
number of counts versus PMT output voltage. Unfortunately, while the PMT voltage varies
directly with gamma ray energy, that variation is not a simple proportion and it may not even be
linear. This means that the scintillation detector must be calibrated with gamma rays of a
number of known energies before it can be used to measure the energy spectrum of an unknown
sample. The calibration results in a relationship that allows you to associate a given channel
number with its appropriate energy.
Eight gamma ray emitting samples are available for investigation today. We will use three of
them to calibrate the energy scale on the pulse height analyzer. In order to calibrate the energy
scale over the full range of gamma ray energies we expect to observe, we will use Cd-109, Mn-
54, and Co-60 as our calibration sources. Cobalt-60 has the highest energy gammas (1.173 MeV
and 1.333 MeV) and you should start with this sample.
? Turn on the power switch for the SPECTECH Universal Computer Spectrometer box.
? Launch the UCS20 software from the Programs menu on the PC.
? From the SETTINGS menu, select HIGH VOLTAGE/AMPLIFIER.
? Turn detector voltage ON, and set voltage level to 500 V.
? Select the COARSE GAIN = 8.
? Place the Co-60 sample in the sample tray and place it on shelf #3.
? Start data acquisition.
? You should see a pulse height spectrum. Adjust the COARSE GAIN and the FINE
GAIN until you obtain a spectrum for Co-60 that has the two prominent peaks near the
far right end of the spectrum. These are the “photopeaks” associated with the
photoelectric effect detection process discussed in the introduction for the 1.173 and
1.333 MeV gammas. Once you find the right gain settings, do not alter them for the rest
of the experiment.
? Acquire a good spectrum for Co-60 and identify the channel numbers that are at the
center of each prominent peak. Note that the software has feature to help you determine
the center of a peak. Feel free to explore these features, although it is satisfactory for the
purposes of this lab to “eyeball” the center of the peak by moving the cursor across the
peak. You will want to either print the spectra you obtain today or produce decent
sketches of each spectrum, with labeled axes in your notebook. Next place the Mn-54
sample in the sample tray and acquire a spectrum. Do NOT change the gain settings.
Identify the channel number at the center of the peak corresponding to the 0.835 MeV
gamma ray emission from Mn-54.
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Session 9: Gamma Spectroscopy 4
? Finally, acquire a spectrum for Cd-109 and identify the channel number associates with
its 0.088 MeV gamma line.
? Use KALEIDAGRAPH to plot the known gamma energies versus the channel number at
which each photopeak was centered. Does the relationship appear linear? Try a linear
least squares fit. You should obtain an equation that relates the channel number to the
energy deposited in the scintillator crystal. Note that this equation depends on the
voltage applied to the PMT (500 V) and the amplifier gain. Altering either of these
settings will alter the energy calibration equation.
Source Gamma Energies of interest (MeV) Principle Decay mode Barium (Ba) 133 0.081, 0.276, 0.303, 0.356, 0.384 Electron capture Cadmium (Cd) 109 0.088 Electron capture Cesium (Cs) 137 0.662 Negative Beta Cobalt (Co) 57 0.122, 0.136 Electron capture Cobalt (Co) 60 1.173, 1.333 Negative Beta Manganese (Mn) 54 0.835 Electron capture
Table I: Standard gamma sources
? Check your calibration by acquiring spectra for the remaining samples in the table above,
determining the energies of the characteristic gammas using your energy calibration
equation, and comparing the energies obtained to the values given in the table above.
? Acquire the spectrum for Na-22. You should observe two prominent peaks. Determine
the energies of each. The higher energy peak is associated with a transition from an
excited state to the ground state in Ne-22, the daughter nucleus produced by the positive
beta decay of Na-22. Positive beta decay involves the emission of a positron (or anti-
electron). The positron eventually finds an electron and the two annihilate to produce
two gamma ray photons that emerge at 180? to one another (to conserve momentum) and
each has an energy equal to the rest mass energy of the electron (or positron). Only one
of these two “annihilation” gammas can enter your detector. Verify that the energy
associated with the lower energy peak in the spectrum of Na-22 has energy about equal to
the rest mass energy of the electron.
? Identify the unknown: Place the unknown source under your detector. Acquire a
spectrum of its gamma rays and identify its elements. Hint: the unknown contains one
the calibration sources plus one of the following:
Physics 160 Laboratory
Session 9: Gamma Spectroscopy 5
Source Gamma Energies (MeV) Principle Decay Mode Sodium (Na) 24 1.368, 2.754 Negative Beta Zinc (Zn) 65 .511, 1.115 Positive Beta/Electron capture Silver (Ag) 108 0.433, 0.614, 0.723 Electron capture/Neg. Beta Rhodium (Rh) 102 0.475, 0.631, 0.698, 0.766 Electron capture/Neg. Beta
Table II: Possible components of the unknown source.
Analysis and Questions:
? Return to the spectrum of Cs-137. Consider whether the width of the peak you measure
is determined by the resolution of your instrument or whether you are seeing the true
“uncertainty” or “natural linewidth” in the excited state of Ba-137, as determined in the
? Now consider the other features of the spectrum of Cs-137. Note that the channels just
below the 0.662 MeV photopeak have very few counts, but that the “continuum” counts
display a “shelf” somewhat below the energy of the photopeak. This continuum is called
the Compton scattering continuum and it results from the Compton scattering of the
incoming gamma off an electron in the crystal, and the subsequent escape of the gamma
from the crystal after having lost some energy in the scattering process. Only the energy
that the gamma loses inside the crystal is detected. The remaining energy in the photon is
carried out of the detector and is not measured. Does the Compton “shelf” appear at the
energy predicted by your prelab? There may be another peak on the Compton scattering
continuum called the backscatter peak that coincides with a Compton scattering event in
which the electron escapes and the scattered gamma ray photon is absorbed. Can you
identify this peak? If so, at what energy does the backscatter peak occur and does this
? Use the Chart of the Nuclides to identify the decay scheme for all the samples you used
today. In particular, identify the isotope associates with the nuclear transition that
produced each gamma ray line you observed. For example, the 0.662 MeV gamma from
Cs-137 is actually due to a transition in Ba-137, the daughter nucleus produced in the
beta-decay of Cs-137.
Along with your usual sorts of conclusions, include such considerations as: How reliable is your
calibration curve? What sort of uncertainty would be reasonable in your energies? What were
the elements in the unknown sample? How does your data support this conclusion?