Ionizing Photon Interactions

Photons, being uncharged particles, interact indirectly with matter by transferring their energy to nearby particles, most often electrons. Photons in the ionizing energy range interact with matter in 5 main ways:

Before describing each interaction in detail, some terms need to be defined for clarity. As mentioned in Introduction to Ionizing Radiation, photon interactions are stochastic, meaning that there is a probability that a photon will not interact with matter and pass through unaffected. These interaction probabilities are quantified using attenuation coefficients, defined as the interaction probability per unit length (e.g. units of cm-1) of matter. Attenuation interactions consist of both absorption interactions and scattering interactions, and are closely related to nuclear physics cross sections (which have units of cm2). We will encounter three main types of attenuation coefficients regarding photons:

An individual interaction (e.g. Rayleigh scattering) will have it's own attenuation coefficients, but these attenuation coefficients may also be added together to form total attenuation coefficients, as we will see later. As a final note, attenuation coefficients can also be divided by the material density, and are then referred to as mass attenuation coefficients (with units of cm2/g).

In the following tutorial pages, brief descriptions of all five interactions will be given, along with some quantitative information regarding the kinematics and probabilities of these interactions.

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References and Further Reading




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