Photoelectric effect or photoelectric absorption (PEA) is a form of interaction of x-ray/gamma photons with matter. A low energy photon interacts with an electron in the atom and removes it from its shell.
The probability of this effect is maximum when
- the energy of the incident photon is equal to or just greater than the binding energy of the electron in its shell (absorption or k edge) and
- the electron is tightly bound (as in K shell)
The electron that is removed is then called a photoelectron and the incident photon is completely absorbed in the process. Hence, the photoelectric effect contributes to attenuation of the x-ray beam as it passes through matter.
To stabilize the atom an outer shell electron fills the vacancy in the inner shell. The energy which is lost by this electron as it drops to the inner shell is emitted as characteristic radiation (an x-ray photon) or as an Auger electron.
PEA is related to the atomic number of the attenuating medium (Z), the energy of the incident photon (E) and the physical density of the attenuating medium (p) by: Z³ p / E³.
Therefore if Z doubles, PEA will increase by a factor of 8 (2³ = 8), and if E doubles PEA will reduce by a factor of 8. Small changes in Z and E can therefore significantly affect PEA. This has practical implications in the field of radiation protection and is why materials with a high Z such as lead (Z = 82) are useful shielding materials. PEA is also utilized in mammography and when using contrast agents to improve image contrast. The dependence of PEA on Z and E means that it is the major contributor to beam attenuation up to approximately 30 keV when human tissues (Z = 7.4) are irradiated. At beam energies above this, the Compton effect predominates.
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