A low-cost, miniature x-ray source has been developed that can be modulated in intensity from completely off to full intensity on nanosecond timescales. This modulated x-ray source (MXS) has no filaments and is extremely rugged. The energy level of the MXS is adjustable from 0 to more than 100 keV. It can be used as the core of many new devices, providing the first practical, arbitrarily time-variable source of x-rays. The high-speed switching capability and miniature size make possible many new technologies including x-ray-based communication, compact time-resolved x-ray diffraction, novel xray fluorescence instruments, and low- and precise-dose medical x-rays.

To make x-rays, the usual method is to accelerate electrons into a target material held at a high potential. When the electrons stop in the target, x-rays are produced with a spectrum that is a function of the target material and the energy to which the electrons are accelerated. Most commonly, the electrons come from a hot filament. In the MXS, the electrons start off as optically driven photoelectrons. The modulation of the x-rays is then tied to the modulation of the light that drives the photoelectron source. Much of the recent development has consisted of creating a photoelectrically-driven electron source that is robust, low in cost, and offers high intensity.

For robustness, metal photocathodes were adopted, including aluminum and magnesium. Ultraviolet light from 255- to 350-nm LEDs (light emitting diodes) stimulated the photoemissions from these photocathodes with an efficiency that is maximized at the low-wavelength end (255 nm) to a value of roughly 10–4. The MXS units now have much higher brightness, are much smaller, and are made using a number of commercially available components, making them extremely inexpensive.

In the latest MXS design, UV efficiency is addressed by using a high-gain electron multiplier. The photocathode is vapor-deposited onto the input cone of a Burle Magnum™ multiplier. This system yields an extremely robust photon-driven electron source that can tolerate long — weeks or more — exposure to air with negligible degradation. The package is also small. When combined with the electron target, necessary vacuum fittings, and supporting components (but not including LED electronics or highvoltage sources), the entire modulated x-ray source weighs as little as 158 grams.

This work was done by Keith Gendreau, Zaven Arzoumanian, Steve Kenyon, and Nick Spartana of Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-16287-1