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Photoelectric & Ionization Smoke Detectors

There are two main types of smoke detectors: ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors. A smoke alarm uses one or both methods, sometimes plus a heat detector, to warn of a fire. The devices may be powered by a 9-volt battery, lithium battery, or 120-volt house wiring.

Ionization Detectors

Ionization detectors have an ionization chamber and a source of ionizing radiation. The source of ionizing radiation is a minute quantity of americium-241 (perhaps 1/5000th of a gram), which is a source of alpha particles (helium nuclei). The ionization chamber consists of two plates separated by about a centimeter. The battery applies a voltage to the plates, charging one plate positive and the other plate negative. Alpha particles constantly released by the americium knock electrons off of the atoms in the air, ionizing the oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the chamber.
The positively-charged oxygen and nitrogen atoms are attracted to the negative plate and the electrons are attracted to the positive plate, generating a small, continuous electric current. When smoke enters the ionization chamber, the smoke particles attach to the ions and neutralize them, so they do not reach the plate. The drop in current between the plates triggers the alarm.

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