X-Ray Vision on Steroids

April 3, 1998
Neutron radiography renders dense materials like lead and steel virtually transparent, allowing nondestructive tests on a myriad of mechanisms

John T. Lindsay
Senior Research Associate
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Peter Schoch
Vice President
Hallock Hydraulic Inc.
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Automotive transmissions often fail when oil doesn’t reach all areas inside the housings and case. Coke deposits can cause fuel injectors to clog in gas- turbine engines. When problems such as these happen, manufacturers often section the part to examine damaged areas. While this helps determine what’s wrong, it also destroys the sample and prevents further tests on the same part. Neutron radiography and neutron radioscopy offer nondestructive options. The techniques let engineers peer inside engines and transmissions while they are running and examine problems without damaging parts.

Neutron imaging
Neutron radiography is similar to X-ray radiography in that images are created based on the attenuation of radiation passing through matter. Unlike X-rays, however, the technique is suited for dense materials such as lead and titanium as well as fluids like water and oil. That is because X-rays interact with the electron shell around an atom’s nucleus. X-ray absorption increases with the number of electrons. Therefore, dense materials like lead, titanium, and steel stop X-rays, while materials such as water, oil, and human tissue are essentially transparent. Neutrons, on the other hand, interact with the nucleus of an atom and not the electrons. Neutrons penetrate materials with lots of electrons, and easily detect materials with a few electrons. This allows imaging of phenomena that is impossible with X-rays, such as water flow in soil, oil flow in a transmission, and fuel flow in an operating engine.

In practice a neutron source beams neutrons through an object to a detector. The low-energy neutron beam has a high sensitivity to most materials. Different materials, however, absorb and reflect the beam to different degrees to create an image of the object.

Neutron radiography techniques
Two common types of neutron radiography are film neutron radiography and real-time neutron radioscopy. Neutron radiography uses standard X-ray film developed much like X-ray images. Objects as small as a few micrometers can be imaged with either method.

In film neutron radiography, a screen converts the modulated neutron beam, which is nonionizing, into an ionizing form to expose the film. The type of screen determines the level of resolution. The most common, and highest resolution, screen is vapor-deposited, 25-µm-thick gadolinium metal deposited on an aluminum backing. A 25-nm sapphire layer protects the gadolinium from moisture in the air. The screen absorbs neutrons and, in turn, emits electrons. The electrons are then used to expose the film, giving the highest resolution available. A gadolinium oxysulfide rare-earth phosphor screen suffices for lower resolutions. This screen converts the neutron image into a light image which then exposes photographic film.

Film neutron radiography is used on static images. When objects are moving or changing with time, real-time neutron radiography, or neutron radioscopy, is used. A gadolinium oxysulfide screen converts the neutron image into a light image. It is then intensified and viewed with a TV camera. A computerized processing system enhances the images, which are stored on video tape in real time at a rate of 30 frames/sec. The images are viewed with an extended red camera, a standard camera that also sees light in the infrared spectrum.

Practical aspects
Experts typically recommend neutron radiography when X-ray radiography is inadequate, or when parts require nondestructive tests. For instance, one recent application was a spin-loss study to analyze clutch plate spacing under various speeds and loads. The spacing and oil flow at the clutch plate interface contributed to energy losses. Neutron radioscopy determined the presence or absence of lubrication and helped track down obstructions or design faults in the clutch pack.

Neutron radiography has also been used to study two-phase flow. Applications include cavitation in pumps and fuel injectors, boiling and heat transfer in cooling channels and tubes, gas and fluid flow in porous solids, and air entrapment in extrusions and injection molding.

However, using neutron radiography requires a source of neutrons. Reactors that produce neutrons for radiography are different from those that produce power. Two common types of radiography reactors are material test reactors (MTR) and Triga reactors. These reactors have no pressure vessels around them like those surrounding power-producing reactors. They produce neutrons solely for experimental purposes.

Several universities, such as University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pa., perform neutron radiography and neutron radioscopy for outside companies. While university facilities are well suited for short-run tests, most are not capable of testing large quantities of parts. As such, these facilities are good for research and development and for locating and solving specific problems. One commercial radiography facility, Aerotest Operations Inc., San Ramon, Calif., performs large-batch neutron radiography.

Edited by Todd Zalud

Transmission repairs
One application for neutron radioscopy was a project to determine the presence or absence of lubrication in the low-planet pinion gear assembly of an auto transmission. Problems with pinion bearings and surrounding components appeared to come from lack of oil. However, conventional tests indicated adequate lubrication to these areas. Normally, solving the problem would require opening the transmission housing, examining damaged parts, changing the design based on the damage, and then checking for the same problems on a new transmission. Neutron radioscopy, with its ability to penetrate aluminum and remain sensitive to hydrogenous fluids, provided the only available method of directly analyzing the running transmission.

A test stand for the transmission was designed by Phoenix Memorial Laboratory, Ann Arbor, Mich., Ford Motor Co., Detroit, and Hallock Hydraulic, Ann Arbor, Mich. An electric motor drove the transmission and a water brake dynamometer simulated the load of a car. A complex hydraulic system controlled the temperature, pressure, and flow rate in the transmission’s four lubrication circuits. Flowmeters, from MicroMotion Inc., Boulder, Colo., monitored and displayed flow rates.

Lubrication flow images were made in selected areas of the transmission at various speeds and loads. The images revealed oil shortages in the problem areas. The transmission was rebuilt with modifications to improve lubrication, then reimaged to check for improvements. Images showed where oil flowed as a function of transmission rpm before and after modifications. The comparisons revealed a greater amount of oil in the problem areas after modifications.

Not only were improvements evident in the images, physical evidence also demonstrated the effects of the modifications. The first run of experiments ended when the transmission began making loud clunking noises. The transmission was disassembled. The bronze pinion washers were fragmented and the planetary gear set and surrounding parts were heat stained. The second run of experiments was identical to the first except the transmission was modified to send lubrication to the area that failed. The transmission made no unusual noises. The transmission was disassembled after completing the second run of experiments. Although similar problems were visible in the parts, they were not as serious as after the first experiments.

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.

Sponsored Recommendations

Pumps Push the Boundaries of Low Temperature Technology

June 14, 2024
As an integral part of cryotechnology, KNF pumps facilitate scientific advances in cryostats, allowing them to push temperature boundaries and approach absolute zero.

The entire spectrum of drive technology

June 5, 2024
Read exciting stories about all aspects of maxon drive technology in our magazine.


May 15, 2024
Production equipment is expensive and needs to be protected against input abnormalities such as voltage, current, frequency, and phase to stay online and in operation for the ...

Solenoid Valve Mechanics: Understanding Force Balance Equations

May 13, 2024
When evaluating a solenoid valve for a particular application, it is important to ensure that the valve can both remain in state and transition between its de-energized and fully...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Machine Design, create an account today!