A technique in which a neutron, charged particle, or gamma photon is captured by a stable nuclide to produce a different, radioactive nuclide which is then measured. The technique is specific, highly sensitive, and applicable to almost every element in the periodic table.
In neutron activation analysis (NAA), the most widely used form of activation analysis, the sample to be analyzed is placed in a nuclear reactor where it is exposed to a flux of thermal neutrons. Some of these neutrons are captured by isotopes of elements in the sample; this results in the formation of a nuclide with the same atomic number, but with one more mass unit of weight. A prompt gamma ray is immediately emitted by the new nuclide.
Measurement of the induced radioactivities is the key to activation analysis. This is usually obtained from the gamma-ray spectra of the induced radionuclides. Gamma rays from radioactive isotopes have unique, discrete energies, and a device that converts such rays into electronic signals that can be amplified and displayed as a function of energy is a gamma-ray spectrometer. It consists of a detector [germanium doped with lithium, GeLi, or sodium iodide doped with thallium, Nal(Tl)] and associated electronics.
Activation analysis can also be performed with charged particles (protons or He3+ ions, for example), but because fluxes of such particles are usually lower than reactor
neutron fluxes and cross sections are much smaller, charged-particle methods are usually reserved for special samples. Charged particles penetrate only a short distance into samples, which is another disadvantage. A variant called proton-induced x-ray emission (PIXE) has been highly successful in analyzing air particulates on filters.
Activation analysis has been applied to a variety of samples. It is particularly useful for small (1 mg or less) samples, and one irradiation can provide information on 30 or more elements. Samples such as small amounts of pollutants, fly ash, very pure experimental alloys, and biological tissue have been successfully studied by neutron activation analysis. Of particular interest has been its use in forensic studies; paint, glass, tape, and other specimens of physical evidence have been assayed for legal purposes. In addition, the method has been used for authentication of art objects and paintings where only a small sample is available.
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