EGU General Assembly 2022
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

DIY Neutron detection: Boron-based Large-scale Observation of Soil Moisture (BLOSM) 

Nick van de Giesen and Edward van Amelrooij
Nick van de Giesen and Edward van Amelrooij
  • Delft University of Technology, Water Management, Water Resources, Delft, Netherlands (

The ratio between slow or thermal (<2.2 km/s) and fast (>2.2 km/s) neutrons is known to be a good measure of the amount of water present in a radius of about 300m from the measurement. COSMOS detectors use this principle and measure neutrons by means of the helium isotope 3He. COSMOS has been in use for some time now and its large-scale observations are central to bridging the scaling gap between direct gravimetric observation of soil moisture (<<1m2) and the scale at which soil moisture is represented in hydrological models and satellite observations (>100m2). The main sources of 3He were nuclear warheads. The fortunate demise of nuclear weapons has had the less fortunate consequence that 3He has become expensive, leading to a search for more affordable alternatives.

Here, we present laboratory results of a boron-based neutron detector called BLOSM. About 20% of naturally occurring boron is 10B, which has a large cross-section for thermal neutrons. When 10B absorbs a neutron, it decays into lithium and alpha particles. Alpha particles can then be detected by ZnS(Ar), which sends out UV photons. Because real-estate is at a premium for most neutron detection applications, most boron detectors are based on relatively expensive enriched boron with >99% 10B. In hydrology, space is usually less of an issue, so one innovation here is that we use natural boron in a detector that is simply a bit larger than one based on enriched boron but much cheaper. A second innovation, put forward by Jeroen Plomp of the Delft Reactor Institute, are wavelength shifting fibers that capture UV photons by downshifting the wavelength to green. Green photons have a wider angle of total internal reflection and tend to stay in the fiber until they exit at the end. Here, a third innovation comes into play, inspired by Spencer Axani's $100 muon detector, namely the use of simple electronics and silicon photon multipliers (SiPMs).

Because we want to know the ratio between fast and slow neutrons, we need two detectors, one that just counts the thermal neutrons that continuously zap around and through us, and one covered by a moderator that slows down faster neutrons to thermal levels, so that they can be detected. Presently, we can build two detectors for about EU 1000. We expect that after the development of some custom electronics, this will come down to around EU 500. Ideally, we would like to build a network of these detectors in Africa in conjunction with the TAHMO network (

How to cite: van de Giesen, N. and van Amelrooij, E.: DIY Neutron detection: Boron-based Large-scale Observation of Soil Moisture (BLOSM) , EGU General Assembly 2022, Vienna, Austria, 23–27 May 2022, EGU22-9749,, 2022.