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High-Z Nanoparticle/Polymer Nanocomposites for Gamma-Ray Scintillation Detectors


An affordable and reliable solution for spectroscopic gamma-ray detection has long been sought after due to the needs from research, defense, and medical applications. Scintillators resolve gamma energy by proportionally converting a single high-energy photon into a number of photomultiplier-tube-detectable low-energy photons, which is considered a more affordable solution for general purposes compared to the delicate semiconductor detectors. An ideal scintillator should simultaneously exhibit the following characteristics: 1) high atomic number (Z) for high gamma stopping power and photoelectron production; 2) high light yield since the energy resolution is inversely proportional to the square root of light yield; 3) short emission decay lifetime; and 4) low cost and scalable production. However, commercial scintillators made from either inorganic single crystals or plastics fail to satisfy all requirements due to their intrinsic material properties and fabrication limitations.

The concept of adding high-Z constituents into plastic scintillators to harness high Z, low cost, and fast emission in the resulting nanocomposite scintillators is not new in and of itself. Attempts have been made by adding organometallics, quantum dots, and scintillation nanocrystals into the plastic matrix. High-Z organometallics have long been used to improve the Z of plastic scintillators; however, their strong spin-orbit coupling effect entails careful triplet energy matching using expensive triplet emitters to avoid severe quenching of the light yield. On the other hand, reported quantum dot- and nanocrystal-polymer nanocomposites suffer from moderate Z and high optical loss due to aggregation and self-absorption at loadings higher than 10 wt%, limiting their potential for practical application.

This dissertation strives to improve the performance of nanoparticle-based nanocomposite scintillators. One focus is to synthesize transparent nanocomposites with higher loadings of high-Z inorganic nanoparticles. A facile single-precursor method is first developed to synthesize HfO2 nanoparticles, the highest-Z simple oxide with band gap larger than polyvinyltoluene, with uniform size distribution around 5 nm. A nanoparticle-surface-modification protocol is then developed for the fabrication of transparent nanocomposite monoliths with high nanoparticle loadings (up to 40 wt%). Using this method, transparent HfO2-loaded blue-emitting nanocomposite scintillators (2 mm thick, transmittance at 550 nm >75%) have been fabricated capable of producing a full energy photopeak for 662 keV gamma rays, with the best deconvoluted photopeak energy resolution < 8%, representing a significant improvement over previous nanoparticle-based nanocomposite scintillators.

Although the HfO2 work represents a great improvement over previous reports, it is also found in this system that the light yield deteriorates at higher nanoparticle loadings. This is attributed to the trapping of fast electron energy deposited in the non-emitting nanoparticles. To overcome this deterioration issue, a revisit to the previously proposed quantum-dot-loaded nanocomposite scintillator is made with significant improvements. Transparent, ultra-high-loading (up to 60 wt%) CdxZn1-xS/ZnS core/shell quantum dot/polymer nanocomposite monoliths are first synthesized by in situ copolymerization of the partially mathacrylate-functionalized quantum dots in a monomer solution. With efficient F�rster resonance energy transfer from the high-atomic-number quantum dots to lower-band-gap organic dyes, quantum-dot-borne excitons are extracted for photon production. The resulting nanocomposites thus exhibit unprecedented simultaneous enhancements in both light yield (visible photons produced per MeV of gamma photon energy) and gamma attenuation power. In a best demonstration, a 60 wt% quantum-dot nanocomposite scintillator exhibits a light yield of 9255 photons/MeV and a photopeak resolution of 9.8% under 662 keV Cs-137 gamma irradiation, demonstrating the potential of this model system for future high-performance low-cost spectroscopic gamma detectors.

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