Most people don’t stop to think about just how amazing the humble, yet fire safety critical, smoke detector is. They’re present in just about every room that we enter in our daily lives. And they always seem to go off when we’re broiling a nice steak in the oven! But consider that smoke detectors have only been a part of human history since 1902! This is because the principles they operate on are based on notions of chemistry and physics that are relatively newly discovered. How do smoke detectors work? There are two main types that we’ll consider today – ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors.
Ionization Smoke Detectors
Ionization detectors use a very tiny amount of a radiation source to ionize, or knock electrons from, the oxygen and nitrogen atoms in a chamber. These atoms are bounced between two plates, one positive and the other negative, which is kept charged by the battery inside. When smoke enters the chamber, it disrupts the constant movement of atoms inside which triggers the alarm.
You might be a little frightened by the idea of having a source of radiation in your home! However, it is important to note that the type of radiation emitted in these smoke detectors are alpha particles. These don’t have much penetrative power and cannot hurt you unless you were to somehow open up the chamber and directly expose yourself to the radioactive material. This does mean, however, that ionization detectors require proper disposal techniques to ensure they don’t pose a health hazard.
Photoelectric Smoke Detectors
Where ionization detectors require a basic understanding of physics in order to understand how they work, the workings of photoelectric detectors are much simpler to grasp. These contain LEDs which send a beam of light across a chamber to a photocell able to detect light. When smoke enters the chamber, it interrupts the beam of light, scattering it around the chamber. This is what triggers the alarm. Photoelectric smoke detectors are not as sensitive as ionization ones and they are meant to detect slower building fires, which are much smokier.
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