30th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Tragedy – or – Building a PIN Diode Geiger Counter

Exactly 30 years ago a great disaster struck the region of Chernobyl: a nuclear accident occurred that released a large quantity of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. And it is only five years ago that, with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a second similar catastrophic event has taken place.

These anniversaries did not directly let me build a PIN Photodiode based Geiger Counter, it is more or less a coincidence. The main drive to build such a device was my curiosity and (please forgive me) a fascinating green glow I’ve seen on various fluorescent Uranium minerals under UV light. But in this context it should not be forgotten that at present there still is a significant increase in background radiation in some regions and some agricultural products due to these events.

There are lots of descriptions of how to build such a device; even cheap commercial products (e.g. the Smart Geiger) use such a design. Especially two sites caught my attention: OpenGeiger.de and Das Gammastrahlen-Mikrofon (German). The design I’ve chosen is based on these sources but I’ve begun to further modify it. In this post I’m showing the design I’ve started with. It mainly relies on two BPW34 (Vishay Datasheet) photodiodes connected in parallel, and two transistors to amplify the voltage fluctuations of beta and/or gamma rays striking the diodes. A 9 Volt battery was added to increase the pulse height.

The common approach to protect the photodiodes from light is to use one layer of tin foil and connect it to ground. This should also protect the circuit against electromagnetic radiation. I’ve started with something different and dipped the diodes three times into liquid rubber (Plasti Dip). My hope was to at least allow some beta particles to reach the semiconductor material.

Photodiode with Liquid Rubber Coating

So far I’ve tested the basic design shown above and had mostly noise on my microphone input. I’d say that sporadic crackling has more to do with the 1 hour hacked together design than beta or gamma rays. The liquid rubber seems to block of light, but the simple design is sensitive to electromagnetic radiation. Waving your hand or even movements in about 1 m distance is visible in the sound profile. An additional tin foil shield connected to ground did not change the noise profile, although the EMR influence was reduced. I’ve tested it with two different sound cards (microphone inputs).

I’m currently redesigning the whole approach and expect better results. So stay tuned…

8 Replies to “30th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Tragedy – or – Building a PIN Diode Geiger Counter”

  1. Hey Kai, You might find this project interesting…

    Peter put alot of work into it, and check out his schematics in the logs. Using similar setup piggy back and well wrapped in foil with his, although I did suggest to him to try the Plasti-Dip route. He actually may be interested in your results:

    HackaDay, Project Name: OpenCT2

    Just an FYI – might be helpful for you as well. I realize they are different directions but I just thought with a similar detection method.

    1. Hi Chris,
      I’ve taken a look at the OpenCT2 and the App Note 2236 by Maxim. I’m impressed by Peters work with the BPW34 in his CT scanner and got a few new ideas for my own project. Thanks for pointing me to this project! — Kai

  2. Hey guys, I’ve been trying to build one of these PIN diode detectors for months. I can’t get them to work. First I started with the one by Weinzel on techlib then I tried the one at http://www.b-kainka.de/bastel131.html.

    I am no electrical engineer but I have been connecting a piezo ear piece across the transistor in each case and when I test it by just touching the two pins of the PIN sensor together I get an audible click. And when I take a bare PIN sensor and run a light across it I get a very slight audible “woosh” as the light passes. But then I stick the diode into a lead pig with a piece of uranium and seal off the light and I get nodda.

    For the techlib wenzel one I followed the specs exactly up to the coupling capacitor for the blinker where I put my piezo ear piece instead. Nadda. Then with the second one I had to substitute the transistors with an MPSA18A and a 2907A because I don’t have the “BC” ones listed. Could that be the trouble? If so, why didn’t wenzel’s work when I follwed the specs exactly? I really would appreciate any help. I’d love to see these work. Thanks!

  3. Use two complementary darlington transistors and IT DOES WORK using a .1uF capacitor in series before the center pin output!

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