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Introduction to X-rays
X-rays are part of the electromagnetic spectrum and have wavelengths approximately 1000 times
shorter than visible light. Thus X-rays have a wavelength of the order of 1x10
metres or 1 Angstrom
(named after the 19th-century Swedish physicist Anders Jonas Angstrom; a typical atom is about 1 Å

• Wavelengths from 100Å to 0.1 Å (or 10 nm to 0.01 nm)
• Frequencies in the range 30 to 30000 PHz (10
Hz or Petahertz)
X-rays were first observed and documented by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923) a German
physicist who found them by accident, on the 8th November 1895, when experimenting with the
production of cathode rays in a vacuum tube. A week later, he took an X-ray image of his wife's hand,
which showed her wedding ring and her bones. Roentgen called the mysterious rays ‘X’ to indicate it was
an unknown type of radiation.

What is an X-ray Image?
If we could see X-ray light, we would be able to see objects
that either emit X-rays or attenuate their transmission. The
information in an X-ray image is contained in the pattern of
varying intensity of the X-ray beam, caused by the differential
attenuation of X-rays due to the structure of the object under
inspection. To make this information available to the human
observer, a visible light representation of the pattern of X-
radiation intensity is required. It is this visible version of the
image, which is known as an X-ray image.
Many objects in space emit X-rays; black holes, neutron stars,
binary star systems, supernova remnants, stars, the Sun, and
even some comets. The Earth's atmosphere is thick enough that
virtually no X-rays are able to penetrate from outer space all the
way to the Earth's surface. For example, astronomers put X-ray
telescopes and detectors on satellites as there are insufficient X-
rays reaching ground level.

X-ray Generators
Standard X-ray systems have three main components:
• X-ray tube;
• high voltage power supply;
• control unit.

X-ray Tubes
There are three basic requirements for an X-ray tube
• source of electrons;
• means of acceleration;
• target for interaction.
The production of X-rays involves accelerating electrons
from a cathode onto a metal anode or target. When
electrons from the cathode strike the anode, two types of
energy are generated; heat and radiation (X-rays). Most of
this energy is released as heat and about 1% of the
electrons' energy is converted into X-rays. X-rays are also
called ionizing radiation because of the way they interact
with matter.
To produce a source of electrons requires that electrons be freed of their atomic orbit. A current
flowing through a wire will increase the wire’s temperature due to the power dissipated in the wire. The
heat excites the electrons and they break away or boil off from the wire. When the energy of the electron
is dissipated, it will return to the wire to be heated again. The heated filament serves as a source of
To accelerate the electrons to gain sufficient velocity (and energy) to generate X-rays requires a high
voltage between anode and the wire filament (or cathode). The electrons are accelerated from the cathode
towards the anode at high speeds. By increasing the voltage applied to the anode the speed of the
electrons and therefore their kinetic energy is increased. The equation used to calculate kinetic energy is:
KE = 1/2 mv

where m is the mass in kilograms, v is the velocity in meters per second, and KE is the kinetic energy in
joules. For example, at 1mA approximately 6 x 10
electrons travel from the cathode to the anode of the
X-ray tube every second.
A target material is required to enable the electrons to interact and dissipate their energy in the form of
X-rays. In high voltage X-ray generators a target material (e.g. Tungsten) is embedded into the anode.
The accelerating force raises the velocity of the electrons from zero to half the speed of light in the
distance between the filament and the target, which is about 1 to 3 cm. When an electron hits the target,
several things can happen.
• an atom can absorb the electron and its energy transferred to the atom;
• the energy of the electron can cause another electron to be knocked out of its energy shell;
• or the electron may just slightly interact with other atomic particles.
Radiation will be produced in all of these cases, but the energy of the radiation will be different.
However, most of this energy is dissipated as heat and about 1% of the electrons' energy is converted
into X-rays.
Modern X-ray tubes employ glass or metal-ceramic envelopes to support a high vacuum (as opposed to
earlier gas type tubes). The means of electron acceleration is provided by applying a potential difference
(voltage) across the tube anode and cathode (and is independent of the voltage across the filament and
current through the filament). Due to the relatively large amount of heat generated during X-ray
production, glass suffers from thermal and mechanical shock. Metal-ceramic materials do not suffer
damage from the excessive heat to the degree that glass does and are rapidly replacing the glass type tube.
The entire tube is immersed in oil contained in a shielded (lead lined) tank. The oil conducts heat
away from the tube and electrically insulates the high voltage supply within the tank.

The cathode is the negative terminal of the tube assembly and includes the filament, which is a small-
coiled wire that is made commonly from tungsten. The filament provides the electrons for acceleration
to the target (anode). Tungsten is metal with the desired properties for filaments (tungsten filaments are
popular for light bulbs).
The current supplied to the filament ranges typically from a few hundred microamperes to several mA
e.g. 1mA at 150keV for a luggage screening system. Adjustments in current to the filament vary the
number of electrons that will boil off the filament. This in turn controls the number of X-rays that the tube
is generating: filament current controls the X-ray intensity.
The positive terminal of an X-ray tube is called the anode, it serves three important functions:
• it provides a complete circuit for purposes of accelerating the electrons;
• it houses the target material;
• it helps to cool the tube.

If the heat in a tube was ignored, the target material that is embedded in the anode would be destroyed in
a short period of time. The anode is typically made from materials with good thermal properties to
dissipate heat. Copper is a common anode material. In addition to using thermally conductive materials
for the anode, alternate means of cooling that may be employed are gas, oil, water, or air.
A rotating anode can spread the heat over a larger volume. The whole assembly is immersed in oil. This
method accommodates higher-powered generators.

The anode also houses the target material, which provides the means for electron interaction or
bombardment. Common target materials are tungsten (W, 74), cobalt (Co, 27), iron (Fe, 26), or copper
(Cu, 29). An important characteristic of the target material is its density. The material must be of high
atomic mass for electron interaction. When the electron interacts with the target atoms, the result is the
generation of X-rays. Low-density materials do not provide sufficient density for interaction.

Power Supply
It is important to appreciate that the filament employs a relatively small voltage across it to produce
current in the filament, while the voltage between the anode and cathode is very much larger for
acceleration of the electrons onto the target. X-ray systems require high voltages commonly in the range
from 5 kilovolts (kV) to as much as 400 kV or more. High voltages are produced by employing a high
voltage power supply incorporates transformers that allow an alternating voltage be increased or
decreased (i.e. step-up or step-down). The principle of operation of a transformer is based on induction.
Transformers are comprised of two sets of windings or coiled conductors that are electrically isolated
from each other. One set of windings is connected to a power supply and is known as the primary
winding. The other set of windings is connected to a load (in this case the X-ray tube) and is referred to
as the secondary windings.

There are three principal controls on a standard X-ray system:
• tube current (mA);
• accelerating voltage (keV);
• exposure.
Tube current and accelerating voltage are the most important in terms of the radiation characteristics.
However, security luggage screening systems do not allow generally adjustment of the factory settings.

Current Control
The (current or mA) control on an X-ray system includes usually a panel meter or digital display. A
rheostat connected to the circuit that allows adjustment in tube current. Adjusting the current through the
filament results in variations in the radiation intensity. The filament provides the electrons for interaction
with the target. When the tube current is varied, the number of electrons being supplied to the anode
(target) varies.

Voltage Control
The kV control also includes some type of metered display (kilovolt meter) and a rheostat in the circuit.
The voltage is referred to as the tube voltage, and is usually measured in kilovolts. Variations in the tube
voltage affect the energy of the radiation; penetrating power varies with the voltage. Increasing the tube
voltage increases the speed of the electrons interacting with the target, and increasing their energy results
in a shorter wavelength, higher energy X-ray photon, with greater penetrating power.

The duration of the exposure is the period of time the object under inspection is exposed to the
interrogating X-rays. When the exposure period has elapsed, the system shuts down and no more
radiation will be produced until the system is reset.
Note that X-rays can be produced by other methods, particularly from cyclotron-style equipment using
the Bremsstrahlung effect. Additionally some radioactive sources produce X-rays. However, these are not
generally suitable for security or industrial applications.

Background Notes
Photon Model of Electromagnetic Radiation
Work by Max Planck in 1900 produced the photon model.
• Light and other electromagnetic radiation is quantised.
• The packets of energy, photons, travel in straight lines.
• When an atom emits a photon its energy changes by an amount equal to the photon energy.

The frequency of the light and the energy are related by a simple equation:
E = hf
E – energy in J;
h – Planck’s Constant;
f – frequency of the radiation in Hz

The constant h is Planck’s constant with the value 6.6 × 10
Js (joule seconds).
We can combine the equation above with the wave equation:
E = hf and c = fλ λλ λ
E = hc
λ λλ λ

Physics of X-RAY Production

When fast-moving electrons hit a metal object, the kinetic energy of the electron is transformed into
electromagnetic energy and heat. The function of the X-ray generator is to provide a sufficiently large
number of electrons focused to a small spot in such a manner that when the electrons arrive at the target,
they have acquired a high kinetic energy.

Objects in motion have kinetic energy proportional to their mass and the square of their velocity.

KE = 1/2 mv

m is the mass in kilograms;
v is the velocity in meters per second;
and KE is the kinetic energy in joules.

In determining the magnitude of the kinetic energy of a projectile, the velocity is more important than the
mass. In an X-ray tube, the projectile is the electron. As its kinetic energy is increased, both the intensity
(number of X-rays) and the energy (their ability to penetrate) of the created X-rays are increased.

The X-ray machine conveys to the target an enormous number of electrons at a precisely controlled
kinetic energy. At 100mA, for example, 6 x 10
electrons travel from the cathode to the anode of the X-
ray tube every second. The distance between the filament and the target is only about 1 to 3 cm. The
accelerating force increases the velocity of the electrons from zero to half the speed of light over this
distance. The electrons travelling from the cathode to anode in a vacuum tube comprise the X-ray current
and are sometimes called projectile electrons. When these projectile electrons impinge on the heavy metal
atoms of the target such as Tungsten (chemical symbol W, atomic number 74, see endnote), they interact
with these atoms and transfer their kinetic energy to the target. These interactions occur within a very
small depth of penetration into the target. As they occur, the projectile electrons slow down and finally
come nearly to rest, at which time they can be conducted through the X-ray anode assembly and out into
the associated electronic circuitry.

The projectile electron interacts with either the orbital electrons or the nuclei of target atoms. The
interactions result in the conversion of kinetic energy into thermal energy and electromagnetic energy in
the form of X-rays. Most of the kinetic energy of projectile electrons is converted into heat. The projectile
electrons interact with the outer-shell electrons of the target atoms but do not transfer sufficient energy to
these outer-shell electrons to ionize them. Rather, the outer-shell electrons are simply raised to an excited,
or higher, energy level. The outer-shell electrons immediately drop back to their normal energy state with
the emission of infrared radiation. The constant excitation and restabilization of outer-shell electrons is
responsible for the heat generated in the anodes of X-ray tubes. Generally, more than 99% of the kinetic
energy of projectile electrons is converted to thermal energy, leaving less than 1% available for the
production of X-radiation. The production of X-rays is inherently inefficient. The production of heat in
the anode increases directly with increasing tube current. Doubling the tube current doubles the quantity
of heat produced. Heat production also varies almost directly with varying kVp.

The efficiency of X-ray production is independent of the tube current. Regardless of what mA is selected,
the efficiency of X-ray production remains constant. The efficiency of X-ray production increases with
increasing projectile-electron energy. At 60 kVp, only 0.5% of the electron kinetic energy is converted to
X-rays; at 120 MeV, it is 70%.

Characteristic Radiation
If the projectile electron interacts with an inner-shell electron of the target atom rather than an outer-
shell electron, characteristic X-radiation can be produced. Characteristic X-radiation results when the
interaction is sufficiently violent to ionize the target atom by total removal of the inner-shell electron.
Excitation of an inner-shell electron does not produce characteristic X-radiation.
When the projectile electron ionizes a target atom by removal of a K-shell electron, a temporary electron
hole is produced in the K shell. This is a highly unnatural state for the target atom and is corrected by an
outer-shell electron falling into the hole in the K shell. The transition of an orbital electron from an outer
shell to an inner shell is accompanied by the emission of an X-ray photon. The X-ray has energy equal to
the difference in the binding energies of the orbital electrons involved.

Example: A K-shell electron is removed from a tungsten atom and is replaced by an l-shell electron.
What is the energy of the characteristic X-ray that is emitted?

Answer: For tungsten, K electrons have binding energies of 69.5 keV, and L electrons are bound by 12.1
keV. Therefore, the characteristic X-ray emitted has energy of:
69.5 - 12.1 = 57.4 keV
In summary, characteristic X-rays are produced by transitions of orbital electrons from outer to inner
shells. Since the electron binding energy for every element is different, the characteristic X-rays produced
in the various elements are also different. This type of X-radiation is called characteristic radiation
because it is characteristic of the target element. The effective energy characteristic X-rays increases with
increasing atomic number of the target element.

Discrete X-ray Spectrum
Characteristic X-rays have precisely fixed, or discrete, energies and that these energies are
characteristic of the differences between electron binding energies of a particular element. A
characteristic X-ray from tungsten, for example, can have one of fifteen energies and no others.

Bremsstrahlung Radiation
The production of heat and characteristic X-rays involves interactions between the projectile electrons
and the electrons of target atoms. A third type of interaction in which the projectile electron can lose its
kinetic energy is an interaction with the nucleus of a target atom. In this type of interaction, the kinetic
energy of the projectile electron is converted into electromagnetic energy. A projectile electron that
completely avoids the orbital electrons on passing through an atom of the target may come sufficiently
close to the nucleus of the atom to come under its influence. Since the electron is negatively charged and
the nucleus is positively charged, there is an electrostatic force of attraction between them. As the
projectile electron approaches the nucleus, it is influenced by a nuclear force much stronger than the
electrostatic attraction. As it passes by the nucleus, it is slowed down and deviated in its course, leaving
with reduced kinetic energy in a different direction. This loss in kinetic energy reappears as an X-ray
photon. These types of X-rays are called bremsstrahlung radiation, or bremsstrahlung X-rays.
Bremsstrahlung is the German word for slowing down or braking; bremsstrahlung radiation can be
considered radiation resulting from the braking of projectile electrons by the nucleus.

A projectile electron can lose any amount of its kinetic energy in an interaction with the nucleus of a
target atom, and the bremsstrahlung radiation associated with the loss can take on a corresponding range
of values. For example, an electron with kinetic energy of 70 keV can lose all, none, or any
intermediate level of that kinetic energy in a bremsstrahlung interaction; the bremsstrahlung X-ray
produced can have an energy in the range of 0 to 70 keV. This is different from the production of
characteristic X-rays that have specific energies.

Continuous X-ray Spectrum
If it were possible to identify and quantify the energy contained in each bremsstrahlung photon emitted
from an X-ray tube, one would find that these energies extend from that associated with the peak electron
energy all the way down to zero. In other words, when an X-ray tube is operated at 70 kVp,
bremsstrahlung photons with energies ranging from 0 to 70 keV are emitted. Thus, creating a typical
continuous or bremsstrahlung, X-ray emission spectrum.

This emission spectrum is sometimes called the continuous emission spectrum because, unlike in the
discrete spectrum, the energies of the photons emitted may range anywhere from zero to some maximum
value. The general shape of the continuous X-ray spectrum is the same for all X-ray generators. The
maximum energy that an X-ray can have is numerically equal to the kVp of operation. The greatest
number of X-ray photons is emitted with energy approximately one-third of the maximum photon energy.
The number of X-rays emitted decreases rapidly at very low photon energies and below 5keV nearly
reaches zero.

Tungsten, W, 74: (X-ray targets & filaments & light bulb filaments)
Tungsten, also known as Wolfram, lapis ponderosus or Heavy Stone, has highest melting point of all
elements except carbon - sources in scientific literature vary between 3387°C and 3422°C. Tungsten is a
steel-gray metal under standard conditions when uncombined. Tungsten is found naturally on Earth only
combined in chemical compounds. It has excellent high temperature mechanical properties and the lowest
expansion coefficient of all metals. A temperature of about 5700°C is required to boil tungsten, which is
approximately the temperature of the sun’s surface. Tungsten is also among the heaviest metals, density
of 19.25 g/cm
,. Its electrical conductivity at 0°C is about 28% of that of silver which itself has the
highest conductivity of all metals.

In 1758, the Swedish chemist and mineralogist, Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, discovered and
described an unusually heavy mineral that he called "tung-sten", which is Swedish for heavy
stone. He was convinced that this mineral contained a new and, as yet undiscovered, element.
• Important ores include wolframite and scheelite.
• Very high density of 19.3 times that of water.
• Robust physical properties, including the highest melting point of all the non-alloyed metals and
the second highest of all the elements after carbon.
• This density is slightly more than that of uranium and 71% (1.7 times) more than that of lead.
• Tungsten with minor amounts of impurities is often brittle and hard, making it difficult to