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How Smoke Detectors Work

Ionization Detectors: Ionizing Radiation

Ionization smoke detectors use an ionization chamber and a source of ionizing radiation to detect smoke. This type of smoke detector is more common because it is inexpensive and better at detecting the smaller amounts of smoke produced by flaming fires.

Inside an ionization detector is a small amount (perhaps 1/5000th of a gram) of americium-241. The radioactive element americium has a half-life of 432 years, and is a good source of alpha particles.

Another way to talk about the amount of americium in the detector is to say that a typical detector contains 0.9 microcurie of americium-241. A curie is a unit of measure for nuclear material. If you are holding a curie of something in your hand, you are holding an amount of material that undergoes 37,000,000,000 nuclear transformations per second. Generally, that means that 37 billion atoms in the sample are decaying and emitting a particle of nuclear radiation (such as an alpha particle) per second. One gram of of the element radium generates approximately 1 curie of activity (Marie Curie, the woman after whom the curie is named, did much of her research using radium).

(For an extensive explanation of nuclear materials and nuclear radiation, see How Nuclear Radiation Works.)

Let's take a look now at the ionization chamber.