Californium-252 Uses and Applications

Californium-252 (Cf-252) is a radioactive isotope that emits large amounts of neutrons. One microgram (μg) of Cf-252 emits 2.3 million neutrons per second. As a result, very tiny pieces of the isotope are used in most applications. Because of their high radioactivity, the pieces are encapsulated for safety and must be handled and transported with specialized shielding materials and containers. An encapsulated piece of Cf-252 is referred to as a “neutron source.”

Cf-252 neutron sources are ideal for a variety of applications across industries. These include material analysis in the construction and oil and gas industries, defense applications, and as the source of the initial nuclear reaction that then triggers the continuous nuclear chain reaction in some types of nuclear reactors.

Frontier Technology Corporation produces encapsulated neutron sources for a variety of uses. You can learn more about each one here.

Prompt Gamma-Neutron Activation Analysis

Prompt-gamma neutron activation analysis (PGNAA) is a non-destructive technique for identifying the presence and quantity of various elements in small to large samples of materials including cement, coal, and minerals. Cf-252 is the radioactive isotope used with PGNAA.  

To process samples, PGNAA commonly employs on-belt bulk material analyzers. This equipment consists of:

  • A conveyor/carrying belt
  • A powerful neutron source (such as Cf-252)
  • Specialized electronics
  • A detector/scintillator

The carrying belt conveys the material into an enclosure inside which the neutrons emitted by the source penetrate the sample. As the sample absorbs the neutrons, it emits gamma rays. Analysts track this data to determine the presence and concentration of each element in the sample depending on the types of gamma rays emitted and their respective energies. PGNAA is often used to analyze cement, coal, and minerals to determine their composition and concentrations of sulfur, calcium, carbon, silicon, and oxides.

Oil Well Logging

The oil and gas sector uses neutron emission sources, such as Cf-252, to learn about the quality and features of boreholes. This data helps determine the viability of recovering hydrocarbons from the drill site.

Well logs can also determine the sedimentation of oil wells. Because hydrocarbons tend to gather in permeable, porous sedimentary rocks, oil well logging gives petroleum engineers essential information on which formations are most likely to hold gas reserves. Specialized equipment that uses a neutron source like Cf-252 can help determine the porosity of a certain formation by revealing its hydrogen index.

Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy (PINS)

Portable isotopic neutron spectroscopy (PINS) is a crucial analytical technique in the defense sector, as it helps detect dangerous materials like explosives so they can then be mitigated safely. Cf-252 is one of the most extensively used neutron sources in PINS systems because of its:

  • Powerful neutron production. A microgram of Cf-252 emits 139 million neutrons per minute, making it one of the best neutron emitters on Earth.
  • Deep material penetration. Cf-252’s high volume of neutrons can penetrate hazardous substances, so it is ideal for PINS systems and bulk analyzers.
  • Detailed material analysis. Cf-252 emits neutrons that permit specialized equipment to monitor and analyze the distinct gamma ray signatures of hazardous containers, supplying a wealth of reliable information in the field.
  • Portability. Using Cf-252 offers easier mobility compared to other detection techniques. This is partly because Cf-252 source containers are very customizable, with adjustable configurations, sizes, and shielding capabilities.

Nuclear Power Plant Start-Up Rods

All nuclear reactors in use today are either for power generation or research. Reactors supply electricity to houses and communities, power marine boats, and create electricity and heating for remote military bases. In research settings like universities, reactors generate neutrons for medical diagnostics and therapy using medicinal radio compounds. These reactors also test different materials for research purposes.

In order to get nuclear reactors up and running, there must be a source of spontaneous fission in the reactor core. This initial reaction then triggers the nuclear chain reaction that continues on its own. Cf-252 is commonly used in this start-up process. A small piece of the isotope is encapsulated and placed in a hollow metal rod called a start-up rod. In each end of the rod are pieces of cold-pressed Antimony-Beryllium (SbBe) pellets, which are a secondary source of neutron emission. Start-up rods are placed in the reactor core where they ensure that the nuclear fission process is underway when uranium or plutonium fuel is added.

Work With Frontier Technology for Your Californium-252 Needs

Frontier Technology Corporation is a leading provider of Cf-252 neutron sources for these and other applications. Since 1987, Frontier Technology has been at the forefront of Cf-252 neutron source design, manufacturing, shipping, and logistics. Contact us today for additional information about Cf-252 or our capabilities.

Prompt Gamma-Neutron Activation Analysis (PGNAA) Material Analyzers for Coal and Cement Industry

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Oil Well Logging

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Development of a Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy (PINS) for the Military/Defense Industry

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