Radiocarbon dating is an objective analysis method for estimating the age of biological samples and materials of organic origin, such as fossils and historical objects, along with some inorganic samples. C-14 dating is based on the radioactive isotope of carbon that accumulates in organisms during their life and decays after their death, emitting radioactive radiation. In addition to archaeology, C-14 dating is used in fields including geology, hydrology, and historical research.
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What is radiocarbon dating used for?
In archaeology and fossil research, radiocarbon dating is used to study the past conditions and environments on earth. C-14 dating can also be used to determine the age of different materials and objects containing carbon-based organic or inorganic compounds, such as minerals and fabric in old pieces of clothing.
Very recent samples cannot be dated reliably – instead, the material should originate from before the 18th century. On the other end of the spectrum, the age of the sample can be approximated up to 62,000 years, but radiocarbon dating gets more difficult when the sample is over 40,000 years old. Alternative methods, including ESR (electron spin resonance), may be used for older samples and materials that are not suitable for C-14 dating.
How does radiocarbon dating work?
Radiocarbon dating is based on analyzing 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 continuously, the ratio of carbon isotopes they contain 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 starts to deteriorate. All radioactive isotopes have a half-life, 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 include 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 radiocarbon dating method is determining the amount of C-14 directly with acceleration mass spectrometry (AMS), which has gained popularity 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.
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 for analysis. When measuring the amount of C-14 in a sample with GPC or LSC, the required sample quantity is approximately 100 mg. With the AMS technique, less than 1 mg of sample material may be enough, thus very small samples can be analyzed. Pretreatment is required to remove impurities from the sample before determining its C-14 content.
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Measurlabs offers high-quality radiocarbon dating services at competitive prices. If you have any questions about your sample or its suitability for the method, our experts are always happy to help. Please can contact us through the form below or by emailing us at email@example.com to tell us more about your measurement needs.
Suitable sample matrices
- Biological samples and remains (e.g. fossils, seeds, corals, resin, pollen, hair, bones, and blood residues)
- Carbon-based organic materials originating from living organisms (e.g. wood, paper, parchment, leather, fabrics, pottery, and wall paintings)
- Organic and geological samples from nature (e.g. charcoal, peat, lake mud, soil, and water)
- Some inorganic materials, such as minerals, that contain carbon (e.g. aragonite of a shell)
Ideal uses of radiocarbon dating
- Estimating the age of samples in archaeological research to gather information about ancient cultures
- Gathering information about past species and their living environments
- Estimating the age of objects and materials in historical reseach
- Tracing reaction pathways in biomedicine with the help of radioactive carbon-14 isotope
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Frequently asked questions
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 understand the past living environments on Earth. In historical research, C-14 dating can be used to determine the age of body remains and old objects, such as bones, blood residues, pottery, and parchment to learn about ancient civilizations. Radiocarbon dating is also used in geology and geophysics to estimate the age of natural samples, such as charcoal, lake mud, soil, and carbon-based minerals to determine past environmental conditions.
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, as C-14 can be used as a tracer for many biological reaction pathways to gather information about their complex functioning.
The suitable age range for radiocarbon dating samples is from the 18th century to approximately 50,000 years ago. Older samples have very little C-14 left, while the C-14 content of more recent samples is practically indistinguishable from one another. It should also be noted that metals cannot be dated with radiocarbon dating, as only organic and some carbon-containing inorganic samples are suitable.
C-14 measurement with AMS cannot be used for metabolic pathway studies in biomedicine. Instead, isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) is a suitable method for this kind of study.
The sample analyzed with radiocarbon dating must be of organic origin or contain carbon. Some examples include biological samples, wood, and fabrics, to name a few. Geological samples that contain carbon, such as soil and peat, can also be analyzed. Metals and other materials that do not contain carbon are not suitable sample matrices.
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