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What is a Particle Detector?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2016
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A particle detector is a piece of scientific equipment which can be used to determine the presence of high energy particles. There are a number of different types of particle detectors in use around the world, ranging from the huge and very sophisticated devices attached to particle accelerators to handheld Geiger counters which are used to check for the presence of radiation. The technology behind particle detectors is constantly being adjusted and refined by the scientific community.

The field of physics has the most use for particle detectors, since physicists work with high energy particles on a regular basis. A particle detector can be used in both research and applied physics, for experiments, safety checks, and investigations into the nature of the universe. In addition to detecting particles, the particle detector can also return information about the attributes of the particles.

Some particle detectors rely on the ionization caused by high energy particles as they pass through a medium such as a gas. The ionization may cause visual changes or changes which can be detected with highly sensitive equipment, betraying the presence of a passing particle. In a Geiger counter, for example, the presence of radioactive particles causes the gas in the particle detector to become conductive, generating distinctive sounds. Others utilize luminescence, relying on the fact that high energy particles can cause luminescence or flares in various substances.

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Particle accelerators have particle detectors attached so that physicists can measure the outcome of experiments conducted inside the particle accelerator. Many of these devices are extremely sensitive, capable of returning data about very small numbers of particles, which can be important with delicate and complex reactions. Particle detectors are also used to measure other types of reactions created by physicists in the lab or in the natural environment, and they can be utilized to study the process of radioactive decay as well.

In addition to being used in research, particle detectors are also very useful for safety. People who work in environments with ionizing radiation are usually required to wear particle detectors which are used to monitor radiation exposure, and these devices are also used to sweep areas for the presence of dangerous ionizing radiation. Nuclear power plants and other facilities which handle radioactive materials usually have a particle detector installed to detect leaks and changes in ambient radiation levels which could signal the development of a problem, such as an instability in the plant.

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