Solid-State Neutron Detectors

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Project Term:
06/18/2018 - 12/15/2019

Critical Need:

Thousands of new wells have been drilled in the United States for exploration purposes in the fossil fuel and geothermal industries, and any occurrence of equipment downtime is extremely expensive. Reducing equipment failures by even a tiny percentage could equal hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. Additionally, new potential areas for subsurface exploration feature extreme temperature and pressure conditions that can damage modern exploration tools. Neutron detectors, used to evaluate and measure oil and gas reserves, are indispensable in geothermal and oil-well logging. Neutron emission and detection can be used to measure the hydrogen content inside a formation, which can provide information on porosity evaluation, gas detection, shale evaluation, and borehole corrections. Currently neutron detection is performed using pressurized helium (He-3) gas tube detectors that require high pressurization and voltage. These detectors are bulky, slow to respond, and unusable above 175°C (347°F). Evolving trends are moving devices into deep and slim wells, where temperatures can exceed 250°C (482°F). New advances in drilling technology are needed to reduced downtime and maintenance while opening up the possibility of new energy resources in previously inaccessible areas.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

Texas Tech University will develop a new type of neutron detector for geothermal and well logging systems. The technology aims to efficiently expand exploration for oil, gas, and geothermal resources into areas with more extreme conditions. Texas Tech seeks to produce solid-state thermal neutron detectors based on 100% boron-10 enriched boron nitride wide bandgap semiconductors. The new product would replace the pressurized and cumbersome He-3 gas tube detectors. Texas Tech's project is enabled by their previous work developing epitaxial growth technology to produce low-cost, free-standing, single-crystal boron nitride semiconductor wafers 4 inches in diameter. When integrated into thermal neutron detectors, boron nitride promises high neutron detection efficiency and improved sensitivity while withstanding extreme temperatures. Boron nitride neutron detectors are more flexible while requiring much lower voltages and no pressurization compared with He-3 detectors, resulting in significantly reduced size and weight, more versatile form factors, faster response speed, improved sensitivity, higher reliability, and lower costs. This detector technology has the potential to improve efficiency and reduce costs for new energy materials exploration and extraction.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Isik Kizilyalli
Project Contact:
Prof. Jingyu Lin
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