Radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon dating is an objective analysis for estimating the age of biological samples and materials of organic origin such as fossils and old objects, along with some inorganic samples. C-14 dating is based on the radioactive isotope of carbon which accumulates to organisms during their life and decays after their death emitting radioactive radiation. In addition to archaeology, C-14 dating is used for instance in geology, hydrology and historical research.

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What is radiocarbon dating?

Radiocarbon dating (or C-14 dating) is an analytical technique used to estimate the age of biological samples, materials of organic origin such as fossils and historical objects, and some inorganic samples. C-14 dating is based on the radioactive isotope of carbon which accumulates to organisms during their life and decays after their death emitting radioactive radiation.

How does radiocarbon dating work?

Radiocarbon dating is based on analysing the radioactive carbon isotope, C-14, that living organisms take from air and food during their life. C-14 is constantly produced from the nitrogen in the atmosphere by cosmic radiation and its amount in the atmosphere has often varied over time. Because organisms restock their C-14 supplies all the time, the ratio of their carbon isotopes at the time of their death can be assumed to be the same as the corresponding ratio in the atmosphere during their lifetime.

When the organism dies, the radioactive carbon start to deteriorate. All radioactive isotopes have a half-live, which is the time in which half of the existing radioactive isotopes have decayed. C-14 has a half-life of approximately 5730 years, which means that 5730 years after the organism has died, 50% of the C-14 has decayed.

The amount of C-14 isotope in the sample can be determined using different methods. Indirect methods are gas proportional counting (GPC) and liquid scintillation counting (LSC), which measure the radioactive radiation of C-14, from which the C-14 content of the sample can be estimated. Today, the most commonly used method is to determine the amount of C-14 directly with acceleration mass spectrometry (AMS) due to its high accuracy and sensitivity. The measured amount of C-14 can be compared to the radiocarbon activity of modern standard and background samples to determine the age of the sample.

What is radiocarbon dating used for?

Radiocarbon dating (C-14 dating) is used for estimating the age of a sample of organic origin. With that information, for example the past conditions and environments on earth can be found out when studying fossils in archaeology. However, radiocarbon dating can also be used for determining the age of different materials and objects containing carbon-based organic or inorganic compounds, for example fabric in old pieces of clothing or minerals. The age of the sample can be approximated up to 62,000 years, but the determination gets harder when the sample is more than 40,000 years old.

Sample requirements and preparation

All materials that originate from living organisms and contain carbon can be dated with radiocarbon dating. Even some carbon-based inorganic samples are suitable. When measuring the amount of C-14 in a sample with GPC or LSC, approximately 100 mg of the sample is required. With AMS technique only 0,1 mg of the sample is needed, thus very small samples can be analysed with it. Pretreatment of the sample is also needed to remove the impurities from the sample before determining the C-14 content.  

Are you looking for a laboratory that does radiocarbon dating?

Measurlabs offers radiocarbon dating tests of high quality and affordable prices. If you have any questions about your sample or it’s suitability for the method, our experts are always happy to help. Please can contact us through the form below or by emailing us at info@measurlabs.com and tell us more about your needs.

Suitable sample matrices

  • Biological samples and remains (seeds, corals, resin, pollen and fossils as well as hair, bones and blood residues)
  • Carbon-based organic materials which come from living organisms (wood, paper, parchment, leather and fabrics as well as pottery and wall paintings)
  • Organic and geological samples from nature (charcoal, peat, lake mud, soil and water)
  • Some inorganic materials, such as minerals that contain carbon (aragonite of a shell)

Ideal uses of radiocarbon dating

  • Estimating the age of biological samples, such as fossils, to learn about the past species and conditions on Earth
  • Determining the age of body remains and old objects containing carbon-based organic materials to gather information about ancient cultures
  • Estimating the age of objects and materials that originate from organic life forms, for example old wooden objects and fabrics
  • Dating of organic or inorganic samples from the nature, for instance soil and charcoal or minerals containing carbon
  • Tracing reaction pathways in biomedicine with the help of radioactive carbon-14 isotope

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Frequently asked questions

What is radiocarbon dating commonly used for?

Radiocarbon dating is most commonly used in archaeology to estimate the age of biological remains, such as fossils of primeval animals, plants and microbes to better know the past living environments on Earth. In historical research, radiocarbon dating can be used to determine the age of body remains and old objects that are carbon-based and originate from living organisms, for example bones and blood residues or pottery and parchment to learn about ancient civilisations. However, almost all kinds of objects of organic origin can be dated, for example old books or wooden items. Radiocarbon dating is also used in geology and geophysics to estimate the age of organic and inorganic samples from nature, such as charcoal, lake mud, soil and carbon-based minerals to determine the past environmental conditions. 

Nowadays radiocarbon dating has lots of applications also in many other fields of science. Atmospheric science, hydrology, paleoclimatology and oceanography use radiocarbon dating to get a better understanding of the early stages and conditions of our planet. Even biomedicine has its own applications for radiocarbon dating, because C-14 can be used as a tracer for many biological reaction pathways to learn more about their complex functioning. 

What are the limitations of radiocarbon dating?

The age of an organic sample can be approximated up to 58,000 to 62,000 years. If the sample is older than 40 000 years, it becomes harder to measure or distinguish the old radiocarbon from newer sources of C-14, because a very old sample has a very little amount of C-14 left. 

The success of radiocarbon dating depends on the age of the sample and the variation in the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere during the lifetime of the organism. The method is suitable for samples older than the 18th century, because after this period of time the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere has not changed significantly. Therefore, when determining the age of recent materials, other methods such as tree-ring dating (dendrochronology) or comparison of the result to the strata of glaciers or deposits of rocks should also be used. 

If the amount of C-14 is measured with AMS, the results cannot be used for metabolic pathway studies in biomedicine. Instead, isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IIRMS) is a suitable method with this kind of studies. It also has to be taken into account that metals cannot be dated with radiocarbon dating: only organic and some carbon-based inorganic samples are suitable.

What kind of samples can be analyzed with radiocarbon dating?

The sample analysed with radiocarbon dating must be of organic origin or contain carbon. Biological samples, including body remains and fossils of all kinds of life forms, can be analysed. Also carbon-based materials originating from living organisms can be dated: wood, fabrics and paper are suitable, to name a few. Geological and organic samples from nature that contain carbon, for example soil and peat, can also be analysed. Additionally, inorganic minerals, whose formation involves assimilation of carbon from the atmosphere are suitable for the analysis. Instead, metals or other materials that do not contain carbon, are not suitable sample matrices.

Pretreatment of the samples is needed to remove contaminants before measuring the C-14 content.

What is Measurlabs?

Measurlabs offers a variety of laboratory analyses for product developers and quality managers. We perform some of the analyses in our own lab, but mostly we outsource them to carefully selected partner laboratories. This way we can send each sample to the lab that is best suited for the purpose, and offer high-quality analyses with more than a thousand different methods to our clients.

How does the service work?

When you contact us through our contact form or by email, one of our specialists will take ownership of your case and answer your query. You get an offer with all the necessary details about the analysis, and can send your samples to the indicated address. We will then take care of sending your samples to the correct laboratories and write a clear report on the results for you.

How do I send my samples?

Samples are usually delivered to our laboratory via courier. Contact us for further details before sending samples.

Radiocarbon dating is an easy technique for determining the age of carbon-based, often organic samples. In addition to fossils, carbon-14 dating can be used for analysing materials that originate from living organisms and minerals that contain carbon. Measur enables high-quality dating for your samples in the best accredited laboratories with affordable prices.