DIY Geiger Counters

In the previous post, I described false starts with off the shelf radon detectors. Radon is radioactive, and anyone who has seen a movie or two knows that the good guys have Geiger counters that make noises when there is radioactivity. So of course, the solution is to get a geiger counter.

The first one I tried was one made by Mighty Ohm. Not knowing any better, I got one that had an SBM-20 tube. This tube detects beta, and gamma particles, but not alpha. Nice geiger counter, great kit, great to put it together and get it working, but let’s skip forward. I need one that’ll measure not just beta, and gamma, but also alpha particles.

Recall that when Radon decays, it releases an alpha particle. See the picture below.

Figure 1. Radioactive decay of Uranium to Lead, including half lives, and emission. Radon (Rn) is the only element that is a gas, the others are all solids.

I had two choices, get another kit, or get something that was pre-built. I chose the GMC-600+ from GQ Electronics. It comes pre-assembled, and pre-calibrated, it detects alpha, beta, and gamma particles, and reviews gave it a good battery life. Most importantly, it was available on Amazon with two day delivery. So I ordered one, and waited. After a false start with the first one (had a line of dead pixels), the second one has proved to be really good.

It also has a USB port on which it appears as a simple serial port device, and you can read, and write from it directly. They also give you some software (I didn’t try it, it was Windows only). I wrote some software based on their documented protocol, and it worked quite easily. GQ Electronics makes some interesting hardware, they clearly are not software people. But, I do like their Geiger counter, and I’ll open source the software I’ve written.

The GMC-600+ uses an LND-7317 tube. As shown on its specification page, it can detect alpha, beta and gamma particles. I found that to convert CPM to uSv/h for this tube, one must divide by 350. I’m not really sure why this is, but for now, I’m using this number and moving forward.

On two different days, I conducted the following experiment. I placed the geiger counter inside the air-conditioning duct, right next to the filter (inside a ziploc bag).

I then ran the circulating fans for two hours, and then shut them off.

On 9/26 the fans were run between 12:30 and 14:30 (local time). On 10/9 the fans were run between 13:45 and 15:45 (local time). Here are the results from the GMC-600+. Note, I converted CPM to mSv/year.

Figure 2. Test on 09/26, fans were run between 12:30 and 14:30 (local time).
Figure 3. Test on 10/09, fans were run between 13:45 and 15:45 (local time).

In the test on 10/09, the counter was placed in the a/c duct many hours before I started to run the fans. The background radiation is about 1 msV/year in both tests. On 9/26 the peak was just over 3 msV/year, on 10/09 it went just over 1.5 msV/year.

In both cases, the radiation level dropped by 50% (over background) in about 50 minutes.

If you look at the radioactive decay chart above, from Po218 to Pb210 takes ~50 minutes. It sure looks like the dust in the filter is radioactive, and has a decay characteristic that could be related to the decay from Po218 to Pb210! Lots of fun and interesting math to follow in the next blog post.

WARNING: You can’t just add half life (times) to get effective decay rates, and half life. A half life is an exponential decay curve, and mere addition is meaningless. It has been a while since I studied Bateman’s equations, but in the simplest form, Bateman’s assumes a chain of decay beginning with all particles of the first type in the chain. That’s not what I’m dealing with here – at the time when the fan goes off, there are a collection of particles on the filter, each with its own decay (half life), and fraction. The effective half life is more complex than Bateman.

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