The photoelectric effect is the phenomenon that transforms visible light, infrared and ultraviolet rays into electricity in solar panels and cells of our cameras. It is also involved in the completely different field of radioprotection : by transforming penetrating X and gamma rays into electrons easy to stop, it protects us from the effects of these radiations.
The photoelectric effect is the most effective physical phenomenon in mitigating these radiations. The gamma or X photon, absorbed by interacting with an electron bound to an atom (*) disappears.
The shell structure of atoms plays a crucial role. The photon wrest an electron only if its energy exceeds the binding energy of the electron on its shell. The probability (called cross section) to remove an electron from this shell becomes non-zero beyond this threshold.
The two deepest K-shell electrons, the closest to the nucleus, constitute somehow the ultimate cartridge of the process . After a last jump, the cross section decreases inexorably. Meanwhile, the light photon has become an X or gamma ray. In this energy range, the electric charge Z of the nucleus occurs at the fourth power: the photoelectric effect for a lead atom (Z = 82) will therefor be 10,000 times stronger than for oxygen (Z = 8 ).
The decrease of the photoelectric effect with energy is impressive, although the fall is mitigated by the jumps due to the crossing of thresholds of the successive atomic shells.
In the case of light atoms like oxygen, the binding energy of the K-shell, is of the order of 1 keV. It is negligible for gamma having energies of tens or hundreds of keV. The electron them seem almost free. We are in the Compton effect range that prevails then on the photoelectric effect.
Heavy atoms, such as lead, areis much more favorable for the photoelectric effect and radioprotection. The material is very dense. The binding energies of 20 and 90 keV of L and K inner shells are much larger. Gamma absorption benefits from the contributions of L and K electrons and especially from the very high electric harge of the lead nucleus (Z = 82) in an area that encompasses all X-rays and a significant proportion of gamma rays.
Desexcitation X-rays : Finally, what happens to the atom left in an excited state? It inherits a surplus of energy equal to the binding energy of the expelled electron. The atom will reorganize itself and return this surplus. If the gamma has removed a K-shell electron, an electron belonging to the higher L shell will fill the vacancy left on the K-shell. During the transition a characteristic X-ray is emitted. This emission of desexcitation X-rays is sometimes called X fluorescence. When the X-ray is emited in dense matter it is usually absorbed after a short range.
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