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Geiger Counter for Arduino

Geiger Tubes and How They Work

The Geiger counter, a device based on the Geiger-Müller (G-M) tubes, is used to measure radioactivity. The tube is a sealed, low-pressure enclosure (glass or metal) filled with a low-pressure, inert gas such as helium, argon or neon. The principle works on the Townsend avalanche phenomenon, which involves changes in the voltage output from energized inert gas when radioactive particles or energies strike gas particles in the tube. These voltage changes, or spikes, can be measured. By counting the changes in the voltage (represented as "clicks"), it becomes possible to create an input into a variety of electronic devices such as speakers, LED's or even input into devices like the Arduino.

The Geiger Counter Circuit

A Geiger-Counter consists of two distinct circuit sections: The high-voltage (HV) generator, and the Geiger–Müller (GM) tube interface. The high voltage section converts a relatively low-voltage source (usually around 9V DC) into a higher voltage (anywhere from 300V DC to 500V DC). The second section sets the voltage for the Geiger Tube based on the specs of the G-M tube being used and allows output of the voltage spikes in "clicks". The design used today uses the SBM-20 tube and its variants, which is one of the more common and easier-to-find G-M tubes available on eBay, through electronic wholesalers or included with some kits.

Getting a CPM

The CPM (Counts per Minute) or CPS (Counts per Second) what is recorded from the tube and it is then converted through a secondary output into a counter that can be used to manually or electronically convert to Seiverts (or more appropriately for the amateur experimenter, millisieverts. A good radiation dosage guide is listed here. Using a 74HC165 and a 555 Timer IC (sending the Geiger Counter click output into a 555 trigger) can make a pretty reliable cascading digit display on 7-element LED's. I won't go into specifics but more is included here. However, my focus was on interfacing a Geiger Counter with the Arduino.

Geiger Counter Kits

There are lots of kits out there -- most of them relatively affordable and easy to assemble. Kits provide the advantage of a pre-defined set of components and a pre-designed circuit layout. Also, the component specs have already been tested, so when working with higher voltage along side components such as IC's, going with a known design at first is wise. Electronics Goldmine has a number of kits that include all components and some pretty easy-to-read instructions. I've assembled C8090 kit. It has a solid state SMD piezo component for low-voltage output clicks without requiring a separate counter.

The C8090 kit is relatively easy to assemble and provides a good basis for experimentation. By leading the output from the LED and SMD piezo component, you can feed a variety of simple counting devices. The voltage to these connections is very low (not even the .7VDC needed to trigger a standard 2N2222 or 3904, so you would need to use an Op-Amp circuit or configure a MOSFET or similar circuit to boost the voltage enough to trigger a standard output such as a 555 trigger or an oscilliscope. This illustrates the basic drawback to this kit -- it doesn't provide much in the way of a counter or record-keeping. Which is why I migrated to the ATmega-328 based-circuit kit described further down.

Feeding Geiger Counter Ouput To An Arduino

However, if you are more experienced, you can look for the Arduino IDE Geiger Counter as an option. It takes more expertise, however, it runs on a lower voltage and the Atmega-328 EEPROM which can be programmed with an Arduino using a USB-TTL adaptor.

Arduino G-M Schematic: Open Source Published by RH Electronics


The Arduino kit has a few challenges, such as soldering the pin headers to the LCD readoutand soldering the chip mount holder. A good instructional video can be found on-line here. Practice first before assembling this kit, as it is pretty close-quarters in terms of the circuit board. The bonus is that an excellent example and instructions are provided here. Also, mounting the LCD display over complete Geiger counter circuit board involves being careful that the LCD display is not pushed all the way down becauuse the mount connections on the bottom of the LCD board will short with components on the main Geiger counter board. The ATmega-328 chip provided with kits are pre-programmed and are calibrated pretty well with any of the SBM-20 Geiger tubes. For calibrations some adjustment may be required with Potentiometer P2 and luckily, the instructions provided with the kit provide good explanation, especially if you intend on using other tubes or want much finer grained calibration. The instructions have both color photo images of assembled components and good user documentation.

Limitations of Geiger Tubes

Geiger-Muller tubes have limitations, especially when working with high end radiation. Tubes have limitations in terms of "dead rates", a bounce period after an event in which events are not counted -- which means that actual radiation count is an estimation and not a precise calculation. Also, tubes have a limited lifespan due to the breakdown of the inert gas over time -- especially dependent on how constantly exposed they are to events. For more on various types of G-M tubes, check out DIY Geiger Counter as a good starting point.

Radiation Sources

Potassium chloride, which is easy to find and relatively cheap, has a surprising level of radioactivity due to the presence of potassium isotope K-40. Some commercial smoke detectors contain small amounts of Americium-243, also a radioactive isotope. However, it is not as reliably found and more expensive. Granite countertops may contain some measurable level of radiation if they contain unique minerals which have higher-than-normal levels of low-level radiaoactive elements included. The sources I use in my experiments are radium watch dial hands (painted with radium many years ago so that they would glow in the dark). These can be purchased from some sources and represent very minor but measurable amounts of radiation.

Remember to always be cautious with radiation and radioactive materials, even in low levels. The key to radiation is not the intensity of the radiation, but rather the length of time exposed to the source. Low level radiation over an extended period is just as lethal as a short burst of high-level radiation -- especially when working in proximity over extended periods of time. How close is too close? Assuming you successfuly built the Geiger Counter, you can see how close a source needs to be. In traditional Fallout speak, "If the Geiger Counter's clickin', you're takin' a lickin'." Basically, if it's hot enough and close enough to make the Geiger Counter register elevated activity, then you're too close for any safe extended exposure. In most cases, still keep your sources stored away in a metal or similar thick enclosure when not in use. Finally, keep in mind the clicks on a Geiger counter are only counting events -- they are not quantifying the energy level of the radiation creating the event. Gamma rays are far more invasive and damaging than much lower-energy alpha and beta particles. The point is this:

Use your tools, but use your head first. In real life, experimentation accidents do *not* give you superpowers!