The neutron detection temperature, also called the neutron energy, indicates a free neutron's kinetic energy, usually given in electron volts. The term temperature is used, since hot, thermal and cold neutrons are moderated in a medium with a certain temperature. The neutron energy distribution is then adapted to the Maxwellian distribution known for thermal motion. Qualitatively, the higher the temperature, the higher the kinetic energy of the free neutrons. The momentum and wavelength of the neutron are related through the de Broglie relation. The large wavelength of slow neutrons allows for the large cross section.
|Neutron energy||Energy range|
|0.0-0.025 eV||Cold neutrons|
|0.025 eV||Thermal neutrons|
|0.025-0.4 eV||Epithermal neutrons|
|0.4-0.5 eV||Cadmium neutrons|
|0.5-1 eV||EpiCadmium neutrons|
|1-10 eV||Slow neutrons|
|10-300 eV||Resonance neutrons|
|300 eV-1 MeV||Intermediate neutrons|
|1-20 MeV||Fast neutrons|
|> 20 MeV||Ultrafast neutrons|
But different ranges with different names are observed in other sources.
The following is a detailed classification:
A thermal neutron is a free neutron with a kinetic energy of about 0.025 eV (about 4.0×10-21J or 2.4 MJ/kg, hence a speed of 2.19 km/s), which is the most probable energy at a temperature of 290 K (17 °C or 62 °F), the mode of the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution for this temperature.
Thermal neutrons have a different and sometimes much larger effective neutron absorption cross-section for a given nuclide than fast neutrons, and can therefore often be absorbed more easily by an atomic nucleus, creating a heavier, often unstable isotope of the chemical element as a result (neutron activation).
Fast neutrons are produced by nuclear processes:
Fast neutrons are usually undesirable in a steady-state nuclear reactor because most fissile fuel has a higher reaction rate with thermal neutrons. Fast neutrons can be rapidly changed into thermal neutrons via a process called moderation. This is done through numerous collisions with (in general) slower-moving and thus lower-temperature particles like atomic nuclei and other neutrons. These collisions will generally speed up the other particle and slow down the neutron and scatter it. Ideally, a room temperature neutron moderator is used for this process. In reactors heavy water, light water, or graphite are typically used to moderate neutrons.
Most fission reactors are thermal-neutron reactors that use a neutron moderator to slow down ("thermalize") the neutrons produced by nuclear fission. Moderation substantially increases the fission cross section for fissile nuclei such as uranium-235 or plutonium-239. In addition, uranium-238 has a much lower capture cross section for thermal neutrons, allowing more neutrons to cause fission of fissile nuclei and propagate the chain reaction, rather than being captured by 238U. The combination of these effects allows light water reactors to use low-enriched uranium. Heavy water reactors and graphite-moderated reactors can even use natural uranium as these moderators have much lower neutron capture cross sections than light water.
An increase in fuel temperature also raises U-238's thermal neutron absorption by Doppler broadening, providing negative feedback to help control the reactor. Also, when the moderator is also a circulating coolant (light water or heavy water), boiling of the coolant will reduce the moderator density and provide negative feedback (a negative void coefficient).
Intermediate-energy neutrons have poorer fission/capture ratios than either fast or thermal neutrons for most fuels. An exception is the uranium-233 of the thorium cycle, which has a good fission/capture ratio at all neutron energies.
Fast-neutron reactors use unmoderated fast neutrons to sustain the reaction and require the fuel to contain a higher concentration of fissile material relative to fertile material U-238. However, fast neutrons have a better fission/capture ratio for many nuclides, and each fast fission releases a larger number of neutrons, so a fast breeder reactor can potentially "breed" more fissile fuel than it consumes.
Fast reactor control cannot depend solely on Doppler broadening or on negative void coefficient from a moderator. However, thermal expansion of the fuel itself can provide quick negative feedback. Perennially expected to be the wave of the future, fast reactor development has been nearly dormant with only a handful of reactors built in the decades since the Chernobyl accident due to low prices in the uranium market, although there is now a revival with several Asian countries planning to complete larger prototype fast reactors in the next few years.