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MODULE 4: NEUTRON BACKSCATTERING TECHNIQUE FOR DETECTION OF

LEVELS AND INTERFACES

4.1. NEUTRON BACKSCATTER PRINCIPLE


The neutron is part of all atomic nuclei of mass number greater than 1; that is, all nuclei except
ordinary hydrogen. Free neutrons those outside of atomic nuclei are produced in nuclear reactions.
Ejected from atomic nuclei at various speeds or energies, they are slowed down to very low
energy by collisions with light nuclei, such as those of hydrogen, deuterium, or carbon. A free neutron
is unstable and decays, forming a proton, an electron, and a neutrino. They are an external hazard best
shielded by thick layers of concrete. Neutron irradiation of material causes the material to become
radioactive (neutron activation) by changing the neutron to proton ratio in the nucleus.
Neutrons may collide with nuclei and undergo inelastic or elastic scattering. During inelastic
scattering some of the kinetic energy that is transferred to the target nucleus excites the nucleus, and
the excitation energy is emitted as a gamma photon. Elastic scattering is the most likely interaction
between fast neutrons and low atomic numbered absorbers. It can be shown that the energy E of the
scattered neutron after a head-on collision is:
= 0

where:
E0 = energy of the incident neutron
m = mass of the incident neutron
M = mass of the scattering nucleus

From the formula is evident that light nuclides are slowing dawn fast neutrons very efficiently.
Hydrogen is the most efficient for slowing down fast neutrons; this is the reason that water and
paraffin are commonly used to thermalize fast neutrons.
High energy or "fast" neutrons from a radioactive source are beamed into a vessel. Fast neutrons
are slowed down mostly by collisions with hydrogen atoms of material inside the vessel. A part of
thermal neutrons are bounced back towards the source. By placing a thermal neutron detector next to
the source these backscattered neutrons can be measured; number of backscatter neutrons is directly in
proportion to the concentration of hydrogen atoms in front of the neutron detector. As the source and
detector move down the side of the vessel, interfaces can be detected provided they involve a change
in hydrogen atom concentration.
Neutron backscatter gauge clearly indicates solid/liquid and liquid/liquid boundaries and, with
careful interpretation of the data, foam levels. The inspection of the interface between water and oil, as
well as among hydrocarbon fractions is the major application of this technique. As long as the vessel
has a wall thickness less than 10 cm, the use of neutrons is a quick and versatile technique, ideally
suited if access to both sides of the vessel is not possible.
Figure 4.1 ilustrates the principle of neutron backscatter technique givin a top-down typical
profile of the thermal neutron record in one storage tank or column filled with field reservoir oil,
where the water, sediment deposit, foam and vapour are developed as well due to the settling process.

FIG. 4.1. Neutron backscatter gauge for level and interface measurement in storage oil tanks
Applications of the neutron backscattering gauge include:
Taking inventory in oil storage tanks without gauges
Calibration of non-contacting or conventional level gauges
Determination of sludge or water layers in tanks
Measurement of packing levels in absorption towers
Detecting collapsed beds in packed columns
Finding levels of toxic or corrosive liquids in tank cars
Identifying build-up and blockages in pipes and reactor coils
Measurement of catalyst levels in reactors
Detecting ice formation in flare/vent systems

The following factors may influence the measurement and give wrong results:
Moisture in insulation,
Non-uniform insulation thickness,
Proximity of human body,
Proximity of plant equipment,
Angle and curved surfaces.

4.1.1.

Neutron sources

Neutrons may be produced using a number of techniques including radioactive isotopic sources,
electrophysical neutron generators and large research accelerators.
Isotopic neutron sources produce continuous fluxes of neutrons. Typical isotopic sources are
Californium-252 (252Cf), with a half-life of about 2.6 years (one mg 252Cf produces about 2.3x106 n/s),
or Americium-Beryllium (AmBe), which produces neutrons via the 9Be(a,n)12C reaction (241Am has a
half-life of 458 years). Isotopic neutron sources have the advantage of having a long useful life and
producing a relatively constant flux of neutrons. They are relatively inexpensive for low flux (<108
neutrons per second) sources. However, isotopic sources have several disadvantages. The neutron
output can not be turned off; requiring that they be contained within bulky shielding at all times.
Isotopic neutron sources cannot be pulsed and the energy spectrum of the emitted neutrons is broad
and peaks at energies below the threshold for some important reactions.
The neutron source mostly used is 1 Ci 241Am/Be neutron source, which produces a flux of 2.2 x
10 n/s and contains an energetic spectrum from 0.1 MeV to 11.2 MeV, with an average energy of
approximately 5 MeV. Cf-252 neutron source is used as well, but it is more expensive.
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TABLE 4.1. MAIN NEUTRON SEALED SOURCES USED IN INDUSTRY

Neutron source

T1/2

Am241 Be
Cf - 252

433 y
2,65 y

4.1.2.

Neutron
(MeV)
4,46
2,12

Mean

Energy Flux of fast neutrons


2,6 10 6 n / Ci / s
2,3 10 6 n / g / s

Neutron detectors

Helium (He-3) or BF3 neutron detectors are the main neutron detectors used in nuclear
backscatter instruments. He-3 detector has a higher efficiency and is mostly required to be used in
recent neutron gauges; in fact, there is a problem to find He-3 detector in the market due to enourmous
demands for this detecot in nuclear science and technology.
Each neutron detector type offers some unique features.
4.1.2.1. He-3 Proportional detector
The most popular detector for thermal neutrons has been the gas-filled sensitive proportional
detector, charged to a pressure of several atmospheres with 3He gas (Fig. 4.2). 3He filled proportional
counters come in a variety of active length and diameters and pressures. They offer many of the
performance characteristics required by both safeguards and spectroscopy applications: high
sensitivity, moderate operating voltage and excellent spectral resolution. Multiple detectors can be
arrayed with a single high voltage and counting electronics channel. 3He is limited to count rates of <
105/sec by gas recombination effects.
Helium-3 (3He) Neutron Proportional Counter is sensitive to thermal neutrons and is normally
used in conjunction with a moderator material. For applications where the surrounding medium acts as
a moderator, the detectors can be used unmoderated.

FIG. 4.2. Some models of He-3 neutron proportional counters


3He counter is used with fast neutron sources to monitor moisture content in soil and concrete
or to monitor oil content within strata during exploration drilling.
In general the He-3 detector has the following typical characteristics:
Plateau slope less than two percent per 100 volts over a minimum of 200 volts range
At least 100 volts common plateau between room temperature and 175 C with less than two
percent count rate shift
High reliability backed by the best warranty in the industry
Sensitive measurements in extreme environments, including high or low temperatures, high
pressures and high shock and vibration
Customized to meet specific application needs

4.1.2.2. BF3 Neutron Proportional counter


Boron trifluoride (BF3) Neutron Proportional Counter is sensitive to thermal neutrons, but is
less sensitive to gamma radiation than Helium-3 (3He) counter. BF3 Neutron Proportional Counter is
typically used for thermal neutron diffraction, spectroscopy, industrial gauging, mixed waste
monitoring and soil moisture detection. Some models of BF3 detector are shown in Fig. 4.3.

FIG. 4.3. Some models of Boron trifluoride (BF3) Neutron Proportional Counters
Relative characteristics of 3He and BF3 Neutron Proportional Counter are:
1. Boron has a lower neutron cross section (3840 Barns) compared with He-3 (5330 Barns),
therefore Boron Counters are less sensitive to neutrons than their Helium counterparts.
2. The energy released per reaction is higher in 10B than 3He which enables BF3 counters to
discriminate against gamma pulses.
3. BF3 counters function at much higher voltages than 3He counters (1-4kV).

4.2. LEVEL AND INTERFACE DETECTION BY NEUTRON BACKSCATTER GAUGE


2.4.1. Level and interface detection by neutron backscatter technique
Without affecting the process reliable, accurate measurement techniques can:
Determine liquid and sludge levels in storage vessels
Locate water/organic Interfaces
Measure foam levels
Determine absorption tower packing levels
Calibrate level gauges quickly and easily
Neutron backscatter level measurement gauge can detect interfaces between solids, liquids and
vapor to an accuracy of 2.5 cm. Vessels can be almost any diameter, with wall thickness up to several
inches. The detection equipment is external to the vessel so these measurements are applicable to any
process material -whether it is toxic, corrosive, or viscous, and at any temperature or pressure. These
techniques even permit calibration of installed level gauges.
Solid/liquid and liquid/liquid interfaces are best detected using Neutron Backscatter technique.
High energy or "fast" neutrons from a radioactive source are beamed into the vessel and slowed down
by collision with hydrogen atoms in the process material. A direct hit results in a slow neutron being
bounced back towards the source. By placing a slow neutron detector next to the source, these
backscattered neutrons can be measured and are directly in proportion to the concentration of
hydrogen atoms adjacent to the probe. As the source and detector move down the side of the vessel,
interfaces can be detected provided they involve a change in hydrogen atom concentration. Figure 4.4
shows the neutron backscatter gauge used in laboratory tank for calibration, while Figs. 4.5 and 4.6
present the real application in a oil tank and the interpretation of the neutron backscatter profile
obtained.

FIG. 4.4. Typical portable neutron backscatter gauge tested in laboratory

FIG. 4.5. Neutron backscatter level measurement in progress on a knock-out drum


Neutron backscatter gauge can be used to measure level and interface of transported liquids in
pipes as well.

FIG. 4.6. Neutron backscattering profile into a oil pipeline

4.2.2. Characteristics of neutron backscatter on various hydrogen liquids


Figure 4.7 presents the experimental layout for measuring neutron backscatter for various
hydrogenous liquids.

FIG. 4.7. Experimental layout for measuring neutron backscatter for various hydrogenous
liquids
Figure 4.8 shows the neutron backscatter count rate versus hydrogen concentration

FIG. 4.8. Neutron backscatter count rate versus hydrogen concentration

4.3. CASE STUDIES


4.3.1.

Interface level in a crude tar tank

The purpose was to measure the liquid interfaces in a crude tar tank in an oil refinery. The tank
had diameter 27 m and height 11m. Various types of liquid hydrocarbures were stored in the tank (Fig.
4.9). The measurements were carried out by means of neutron backscatter gauge, using different
neutron moderation effect due to variation in hydrogen content of oil fractions.

FIG. 4.9. Crude oil storage tank


Two profiles along the height of the crude tar tank were performed using a 1 Ci 241Am/Be
neutron source. The results obtained during the measurements are shown graphically (Fig. 4.10).
Various liquid interfaces were detected inside the crude oil storage tank:
Interface one, located between 1.1 m and 1.75 m.
Interface two, located between 1.75 m and 5.7 m.
Interface three, located between 5.75 m and 7.4 m.
Interface four, located between 7.4 m and 9.6 m.
Therefore, four different hydrogen content liquids were identified that much probably
correspond to four layers of hydrocarbon fractions separated during storage time. Some unidentified
objects (not indicated on a mechanical drawing of the tank) were detected at 3.7 m; 7.7 m and 8.4 m as
well.

FIG. 4.10. Interface levels in a crude tar tank

4.3.2.

Neutron backscatter scanning of fractionation column

A cracking fractionation column has experienced problem related with blockage of trays by
coke produced during cracking process. Plant engineers have suspected intensive coke deposition in
low part of column. The gamma scanning can not see well coke formation at its early phase of
deposition at column walls due to low contrast of coal layers to gamma transmission. Neutron
scanning is more sensitive to coal deposition in this case.
The lower part of a 6 m. diameter column was scanned by neutron backscatter gauge (FIG.
4.11). There was obtained a relatively higher peak between trays 6 and 7. This peak was higher than
the other readings coming from liquid phase lying on trays. This high peak can be provided only by
coke solidified at the column walls between trays 6 and 7. This result was confirmed after opening the
column. The coke deposit layer was quite thick (several tenths of cm) disturbing all column process. It
was very hard to remove the deposited coke block from the column. A pneumatic hammer was used in
this case. To follow the dynamic of coke deposition regular neutron backscatter profiles have to be
taken every month after column operation starts. The coke formation process is very fast, in 4-5 month
time it can completely block the column.
In fact, gamma and neutron scanning profiles are used complementary for many columntroubleshooting inspections. After performing a gamma scanning profile, it is recommended in some
cases to obtain a neutron backscatter profile to obtain additional information about the column insight,
in particular in columns where coke formation is suspected.

FIG. 4.11. Neutron backscatter profile of a part of fractionation column.


Conclusion:
Coke blockage is observed on the tray 6.
4.3.3.

Neutron Measurement on a Polymer Line

A neutron source emits neutron particles which pass readily through insulation and carbon steel
to measure process material within a range of 4 - 6 inches. The neutron particles are moderated
(scattered) by Hydrogen nuclei, and measured by a detector that adjoins the neutron source, illustrated
in the figure shown below (Fig. 4.12).

FIG. 4.12. Neutron measurement on a polymer pipe for detecting polymer buidup inside the pipe.

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4.4. MONITORING OIL/WATER SEPARATION IN OIL SEPARATOR USING GAMMA


TRANSMISSION AND NEUTRON BACKSCATTER SCANNINGS
4.4.1.

Separator problems and their solution

Oil separators are among the most important processing vessels in oil industry. Figure 4.13
shows a typical oil separator.

FIG. 4.13. Typical oil separator in a refinery


The figures below illustrate the key features of a three-phase production separator in the Oil/Gas
Industry. A diagrammatic representation (Fig.4.14 left) of a cross section through a separator
immediately upstream of the weir in a separator exhibiting ideal performance characteristics.
Contrasting with the previous slide, this illustrates the type of separator cross section that is
encountered in reality (Fig. 4.14 right).

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FIG. 4.14. The ideal (left) and real (right) separators

4.4.2.

Gamma sealed source profiler for monitoring oil/water separation process in oil
separator
How can the Oil Separator be controlled? You cannot control what you cannot measure.

The radioisotope profiler is a nuclear instrument to measure the vertical distribution of various
materials contained in process vessels. Unlike conventional interface systems it also provides
information on the extent of phases dispersion, giving a clear indication of the quality of the interface
which exists between any two phases in a multiphase separation system. Radioisotope profile is an
instrument of choice in particular in oil separators (Fig. 4.15).

FIG. 4.15. Views of a Density Profiler Installed inside the Oil Separator

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Lack of accurate measurement of the levels of oil, water and gas as well as any sand, emulsion
or foam meant less complete control of the oil separator performance. As a result output spend was
high on effect chemicals: maintenance was intensive; and there was a risk of discharging water
containing oil.
The benefits of using radioisotope profiler in oil separator are huge, in particular in off-shore oil
production and operation in platforms. The profiler:
characterizes real-time vessel conditions
improves the process control
optimizes the vessel performance
has zero maintenance and no moving parts
increases the production throughput in the vessel
brings cost savings on chemical additives
Tracerco company has designed and manufactured on-line radioisotope profiler with high
quality and performance (Profiler-brochure.pdf) the radioisotope profiler comprises two or three
titanium dip-pipes installed within the separator through a nozzle of 2 or greater (Figs. 4.16 and
4.17). A narrow dip-pipe holds a vertical array of low energy gamma emitters (Am-241). The other
dip-pipe(s) holds a corresponding array of gamma detectors, Geiger Muller tubes. Each GM tube is
matched to the gamma emitter on the same plan. The emitter directs radiation through the fluid within
the separator to be picked up by the detector. Due to oil, water, sand, foam and emulsion all having
different densities, they will attenuate the signal passing through them by different amounts. Each
source/detector gives an individual density reading at 28 mm resolution. Counts vary due to different
absorption coefficient and density of materials. The density registered by each tube is transmitted to a
signal-processing unit housed in the dome above the dip-pipes.

FIG. 4.16. Density profiler: Sources and detectors arrangement

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FIG. 4.17. Density profiler:Sources detectors assembly

FIG. 4.18. The Tracerco Profiler

FIG. 4.19. The installed Profiler

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The information is converted into serial data and sent via fiber optic cable to the plant computer
(Fig. 4.20). On the screen the fluid density at each point is depicted in real time. For the first time ever
you can see a complete profile of the distribution of fluids within the separator:

the interface between water and oil and gas


the quality of the separation
the extent of foam build up
the total liquid position
the level of sand build-up.

FIG. 4.20. Tracerco Profiler in Operation Offshore Angola. Screen-shot 2.

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4.4.3.

Neutron backscatter technique in investigating oil separator

4.4.3.1. Neutron backscatter scans for the measurement of foam layers


Oil separator is very important processing vessel which function is to continuously separate oil,
water and gas from the three phase flow mixture is entering the separator. Both radiotracers, gamma
scanning and neutron backscatter techniques can be used for investigation of the separation process,
monitoring it and optimizing the efficiency of separation.
Fig. 4.21 shows the principle of the neutron backscatter scan of the oil separator and its typical
results: the interfaces of different phases.

FIG. 4.21. Neutron backscatter scan of the oil Separator: Measurement of Sand, Water and Oil
Layers
In fact, the interfaces are not sharply separated as shown above. Due to foal and emulsion
creating between phases the interfaces are fluctuating and displaced all the time. Fig. 4.22 shows a real
neutron backscatter scan of a section of the oil separator where the identification of the foaming, level,
layer thickness and interface was requested by end users. As shown in the scan profilers, the foam
band is relatively large of nearly 1 m, and is fluctuating in level and layer thickness of many
centimeters in few hours or few days of continuous operation.

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FIG. 4.22. Neutron backscatter scans of a section of the oil separator for identification of the
foaming, level, layer thickness and interface.

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