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Nuclear Spectroscopy

Steven Covin
Phys 480l
(Dated: December 12, 2015)
Nuclear spectroscopy is a technique used to analyze the energy spectrum of gamma rays emitted
by radioactive sources. In this study, the positions of the Compton edges from known photopeaks
in Na22 , Cs147 , and Co60 were experimentally measured to within 1 of the theoretically predicted
values (Table II). By recording the energy loss of these photopeaks through aluminum and lead
shields of various thickness, the mass attenuation coefficients of these materials were also determined
to within 1 of the values reported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Table III).



The atomic decay of radioactive Co60 , Na22 and

Cs137 isotopes produce photons at several known energies, which manifest as photopeaks in the gamma
ray energy spectrum. In Na22 , pair production occurs when a gamma ray of sufficient energy forms a
positron electron pair. The pair annihilation emits
oppositely directed gamma rays of energy 0.511MeV,
of which only one is detected. This photon corresponds to an annihilation peak in the sources energy
When these gamma ray photons scatter off of a
loosely bound electron, some of the photons energy
is transferred in the process. This phenomenon described by Arthur Holly Compton in 1924 would utimately earn him the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics.
The Compton scattered energy, E 0 of a photon with
initial energy E is [1]:
E0 =

E me c2
E (1 cos) + me c2


where me c2 is the electron mass; 0.511MeV, and

is the scattering angle between the photons incoming and outgoing trajectories. The maximum energy
transfer occurs when the photon is scattered such
that the outgoing angle = . The maximum kinetic energy that can be transferred to an electron,
Tmax = E E 0 is then:
Tmax = E E 0 =

2E2 /me c2
1 + 2E /me c2


Since scattering angles from 0 to are allowed, the

energy spectrum displays a continuum of photons up
to this maximum value followed by a sharp decrease
in intensity. We experimentally measured the energy
spectrum of Co60 , Cs137, and Na22 as histograms.
From this data the Compton edge energy was graphically determined to compare with the value predicted by radiation-matter interaction theory.

When an absorption shield is placed between the

source and detector, some energy is transferred to
the material by the incident photons. We find the
radioactive intensity falls off exponentially as a function of the absorber thickness. Since the numerical
photon flux correlated with a particular photopeak
and its intensity are proportional, the number of
observed photons also decreases exponentially such
N (x) = N0 ex


where N (x) denotes the number of photopeak counts

through an absorption distance x. N0 is the number
of photopeak counts with no absorber, and is a
property of the absorption material that depends on
the energy of the incident photons; E . When reported in terms of density, / is referred to as the
mass attenuation coefficient of the material.



The key elements in the experimental setup were

an NaI crystal scintillator, a Photomultiplier Tube
(PMT), a Multichannel Analyzer (MCA), and the
Maestro software suite used to interface with the
MCA. The PMT was powered by a 1.6kV supply,
and the output signals were passed through preamplifcation and amplification stages, the overall signal
path is shown in Fig 1. Rectangular blocks of aluminum and lead were stacked in configurations of
varying thickness to determine their absorption coefficients.

FIG. 1: Block diagram depicting the signal path of

the PMT signal.



The PMT was oriented facing downwards, with

the radioactive source placed below. The PMT signal was located on an oscilloscope initially, and between each stage of amplification. An amplification
setting of 35X gain was used to provide the correct
scaling of the desired energy spectrum throughout
the MCA channels. The signals were then recieved
by the MCA, and recorded by the Maestro software.
Fig 2 shows histogram data collected using radioactive Co60 , Cs137 , and Na22 sources. From these measurements, the channel number of well known photopeaks (and annihilation peak in Na22 ) was recorded
to produce the calibration plot in Fig 3.


TABLE I: Table of known photopeak energies and

corresponding channel numbers.
Isotope Photon Energy, (MeV) [1] Channel Number


The channel location of the Compton edge can

be determined graphically from the histogram data.
The Compton edge energy EC is then given as a
function of MCA channel number, N , by the linear
EC (N ) = (1.916 0.095) 103 N
(0.027 0.0052)



FIG. 2: Energy spectrum histogram data for each

radioactive source.

TABLE II: Experimentally measured Compton

edge energy EC , compared with the theoretical
energy ET predicted by Eq 2 for a photon of
energy E .
Isotope E , (MeV) ET , (MeV)

EC , (MeV)
0.936 0.186
0.488 0.097
0.356 0.046


FIG. 3: Energy calibration of the MCA channels.

In order to determine the mass attenuation coefficients of aluminum and lead, absorption shields
made from these materials were placed between the
source and detector. Measurements of the energy
spectra of Co60 and Cs137 were taken over a specified
amount of time, using absorbers of varying thickness. Figures 4 and 6 show these recorded energy
spectra as histograms.

(a)Aluminum absorber for 120s.

(a)Aluminum absorber for 300s.

(b)Lead Absorber for 120s.

FIG. 6: Histogram energy spectrum data for Cs137

through absorption shields.

(b)Lead Absorber for 500s.

FIG. 4: Histogram energy spectrum data for Co60

through absorption shields.

FIG. 7: Normalized photopeak counts

corresponding to 0.66MeV photons emitted by
Cs137 through absorption shields.

TABLE III: Mass attenuation coefficients, /, for

an incoming photon of energy E .
Material E , (MeV)

FIG. 5: Normalized photopeak counts

corresponding to 1.17MeV photons emitted by
Co60 through absorption shields.

/, (cm2 /g)
0.056 0.0032
0.115 0.022
0.52 0.0032
0.077 0.0053


Figures 5 and 7 were generated by integrating the

total number of counts associated with the 1.17MeV
Co60 and 0.66MeV Cs137 photopeaks through each
distance of absorber. These peaks were chosen because they are above the Compton edge for each
source, to reduce the number of accidental counts
from Compton scattered photons.
The photopeak count integration was done within
Maestro software, and normalized to units of
counts/sec. By Eq 3, the mass attenuation coefficient / was extracted from the exponential fit of
this data. Table III shows the experimentally determined mass attenuation coefficients for lead and
aluminum, using each photopeak.



Using nuclear spectroscopy, the Compton edges

of Co60 , Cs137 , and Na22 isotopes were measured
to be (0.936 0.186)MeV, (0.488 0.097)MeV, and
(0.356 0.046)MeV respectively (Table II). These
results are each within 1 to the values predicted by
radiation-matter interaction theory in Eq 2.
By recording the spectra of these sources through
various distances of lead and aluminum, the absorption properties of these materials were also determined. For 1.17MeV and 0.66MeV photons in lead,
the mass attenuation coefficients were measured to
be (0.0560.0032) g/cm2 and (0.1150.022) g/cm2 .
For photons of the same energies in aluminum, the
coefficients were (0.52 0.0032) and (0.077 0.0053)
(Table III). In each case, the measurements were
again within 1 to the mass attenuation coefficients
reported by NIST.

[1] Melissinos, C., Adrian, Napolitano, Jim Experiments in Modern Physics, 2nd Ed., Academic Press,
New York and London, 2003.
[2] Taylor, R., John, An Introduction to Error Analysis,

2nd Ed., University Science Books, 1997.

[3] National Institute of Standards and Technology X-Ray Mass Attenuation Coefficients,