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How Does Radiocarbon Dating Work? - Instant Egghead #28

Radiocarbon dating also referred to as carbon dating or carbon dating is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon , a radioactive isotope of carbon. The method was developed in the late s by Willard Libby , who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in It is based on the fact that radiocarbon 14 C is constantly being created in the atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen. The resulting 14 C combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide , which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis ; animals then acquire 14 C by eating the plants. When the animal or plant dies, it stops exchanging carbon with its environment, and from that point onwards the amount of 14 C it contains begins to decrease as the 14 C undergoes radioactive decay. Measuring the amount of 14 C in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died.

For beta counters, a sample weighing at least 10 grams 0. For decades after Libby performed the first radiocarbon dating experiments, the only way to measure the 14 C in a sample was to detect the radioactive decay of individual carbon atoms. Libby's first detector was a Geiger counter of his own design.

He converted the carbon in his sample to lamp black soot and coated the inner surface of a cylinder with it. This cylinder was inserted into the counter in such a way that the counting wire was inside the sample cylinder, in order that there should be no material between the sample and the wire. Libby's method was soon superseded by gas proportional counters , which were less affected by bomb carbon the additional 14 C created by nuclear weapons testing.

These counters record bursts of ionization caused by the beta particles emitted by the decaying 14 C atoms; the bursts are proportional to the energy of the particle, so other sources of ionization, such as background radiation, can be identified and ignored.

The counters are surrounded by lead or steel shielding, to eliminate background radiation and to reduce the incidence of cosmic rays. In addition, anticoincidence detectors are used; these record events outside the counter, and any event recorded simultaneously both inside and outside the counter is regarded as an extraneous event and ignored. The other common technology used for measuring 14 C activity is liquid scintillation counting, which was invented in , but which had to wait until the early s, when efficient methods of benzene synthesis were developed, to become competitive with gas counting; after liquid counters became the more common technology choice for newly constructed dating laboratories.

The counters work by detecting flashes of light caused by the beta particles emitted by 14 C as they interact with a fluorescing agent added to the benzene. Like gas counters, liquid scintillation counters require shielding and anticoincidence counters. For both the gas proportional counter and liquid scintillation counter, what is measured is the number of beta particles detected in a given time period.

This provides a value for the background radiation, which must be subtracted from the measured activity of the sample being dated to get the activity attributable solely to that sample's 14 C. In addition, a sample with a standard activity is measured, to provide a baseline for comparison. The ions are accelerated and passed through a stripper, which removes several electrons so that the ions emerge with a positive charge.

A particle detector then records the number of ions detected in the 14 C stream, but since the volume of 12 C and 13 C , needed for calibration is too great for individual ion detection, counts are determined by measuring the electric current created in a Faraday cup.

Any 14 C signal from the machine background blank is likely to be caused either by beams of ions that have not followed the expected path inside the detector, or by carbon hydrides such as 12 CH 2 or 13 CH.

A 14 C signal from the process blank measures the amount of contamination introduced during the preparation of the sample. These measurements are used in the subsequent calculation of the age of the sample. The calculations to be performed on the measurements taken depend on the technology used, since beta counters measure the sample's radioactivity whereas AMS determines the ratio of the three different carbon isotopes in the sample.

To determine the age of a sample whose activity has been measured by beta counting, the ratio of its activity to the activity of the standard must be found. To determine this, a blank sample of old, or dead, carbon is measured, and a sample of known activity is measured. The additional samples allow errors such as background radiation and systematic errors in the laboratory setup to be detected and corrected for.

The results from AMS testing are in the form of ratios of 12 C , 13 C , and 14 C , which are used to calculate Fm, the "fraction modern". Both beta counting and AMS results have to be corrected for fractionation. The calculation uses 8,, the mean-life derived from Libby's half-life of 5, years, not 8,, the mean-life derived from the more accurate modern value of 5, years. The reliability of the results can be improved by lengthening the testing time.

Radiocarbon dating is generally limited to dating samples no more than 50, years old, as samples older than that have insufficient 14 C to be measurable.

Older dates have been obtained by using special sample preparation techniques, large samples, and very long measurement times.

These techniques can allow measurement of dates up to 60, and in some cases up to 75, years before the present. This was demonstrated in by an experiment run by the British Museum radiocarbon laboratory, in which weekly measurements were taken on the same sample for six months. The measurements included one with a range from about to about years ago, and another with a range from about to about Errors in procedure can also lead to errors in the results.

The calculations given above produce dates in radiocarbon years: To produce a curve that can be used to relate calendar years to radiocarbon years, a sequence of securely dated samples is needed which can be tested to determine their radiocarbon age. The study of tree rings led to the first such sequence: These factors affect all trees in an area, so examining tree-ring sequences from old wood allows the identification of overlapping sequences.

In this way, an uninterrupted sequence of tree rings can be extended far into the past. The first such published sequence, based on bristlecone pine tree rings, was created by Wesley Ferguson. Suess said he drew the line showing the wiggles by "cosmic schwung ", by which he meant that the variations were caused by extraterrestrial forces.

It was unclear for some time whether the wiggles were real or not, but they are now well-established. A calibration curve is used by taking the radiocarbon date reported by a laboratory, and reading across from that date on the vertical axis of the graph.

The point where this horizontal line intersects the curve will give the calendar age of the sample on the horizontal axis. This is the reverse of the way the curve is constructed: Over the next thirty years many calibration curves were published using a variety of methods and statistical approaches.

The improvements to these curves are based on new data gathered from tree rings, varves , coral , plant macrofossils , speleothems , and foraminifera.

Radiocarbon dating would be useful in dating the age of the earth

The INTCAL13 data includes separate curves for the northern and southern hemispheres, as they differ systematically because of the hemisphere effect. The southern curve SHCAL13 is based on independent data where possible, and derived from the northern curve by adding the average offset for the southern hemisphere where no direct data was available. The sequence can be compared to the calibration curve and the best match to the sequence established. Bayesian statistical techniques can be applied when there are several radiocarbon dates to be calibrated.

For example, if a series of radiocarbon dates is taken from different levels in a stratigraphic sequence, Bayesian analysis can be used to evaluate dates which are outliers, and can calculate improved probability distributions, based on the prior information that the sequence should be ordered in time. Several formats for citing radiocarbon results have been used since the first samples were dated.

As of , the standard format required by the journal Radiocarbon is as follows. For example, the uncalibrated date "UtC Related forms are sometimes used: Calibrated dates should also identify any programs, such as OxCal, used to perform the calibration.

Radiocarbon dating

A key concept in interpreting radiocarbon dates is archaeological association: It frequently happens that a sample for radiocarbon dating can be taken directly from the object of interest, but there are also many cases where this is not possible. Metal grave goods, for example, cannot be radiocarbon dated, but they may be found in a grave with a coffin, charcoal, or other material which can be assumed to have been deposited at the same time.

In these cases a date for the coffin or charcoal is indicative of the date of deposition of the grave goods, because of the direct functional relationship between the two. There are also cases where there is no functional relationship, but the association is reasonably strong: Contamination is of particular concern when dating very old material obtained from archaeological excavations and great care is needed in the specimen selection and preparation.

In , Thomas Higham and co-workers suggested that many of the dates published for Neanderthal artefacts are too recent because of contamination by "young carbon". As a tree grows, only the outermost tree ring exchanges carbon with its environment, so the age measured for a wood sample depends on where the sample is taken from.

This means that radiocarbon dates on wood samples can be older than the date at which the tree was felled. In addition, if a piece of wood is used for multiple purposes, there may be a significant delay between the felling of the tree and the final use in the context in which it is found.

Another example is driftwood, which may be used as construction material. It is not always possible to recognize re-use. Other materials can present the same problem: A separate issue, related to re-use, is that of lengthy use, or delayed deposition. For example, a wooden object that remains in use for a lengthy period will have an apparent age greater than the actual age of the context in which it is deposited. Archaeology is not the only field to make use of radiocarbon dating.

The ability to date minute samples using AMS has meant that palaeobotanists and palaeoclimatologists can use radiocarbon dating on pollen samples. Radiocarbon dates can also be used in geology, sedimentology, and lake studies, for example.

Dates on organic material recovered from strata of interest can be used to correlate strata in different locations that appear to be similar on geological grounds. Dating material from one location gives date information about the other location, and the dates are also used to place strata in the overall geological timeline. The Pleistocene is a geological epoch that began about 2. The Holocene , the current geological epoch, begins about 11, years ago, when the Pleistocene ends. Before the advent of radiocarbon dating, the fossilized trees had been dated by correlating sequences of annually deposited layers of sediment at Two Creeks with sequences in Scandinavia.

This led to estimates that the trees were between 24, and 19, years old, [95] and hence this was taken to be the date of the last advance of the Wisconsin glaciation before its final retreat marked the end of the Pleistocene in North America. This result was uncalibrated, as the need for calibration of radiocarbon ages was not yet understood. Further results over the next decade supported an average date of 11, BP, with the results thought to be most accurate averaging 11, BP.

There was initial resistance to these results on the part of Ernst Antevs , the palaeobotanist who had worked on the Scandinavian varve series, but his objections were eventually discounted by other geologists. In the s samples were tested with AMS, yielding uncalibrated dates ranging from 11, BP to 11, BP, both with a standard error of years.

Subsequently, a sample from the fossil forest was used in an interlaboratory test, with results provided by over 70 laboratories. In , scrolls were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea that proved to contain writing in Hebrew and Aramaic , most of which are thought to have been produced by the Essenes , a small Jewish sect.

These scrolls are of great significance in the study of Biblical texts because many of them contain the earliest known version of books of the Hebrew bible. The results ranged in age from the early 4th century BC to the mid 4th century AD. In all but two cases the scrolls were determined to be within years of the palaeographically determined age.

Creation v. Evolution: How Carbon Dating Works

Subsequently, these dates were criticized on the grounds that before the scrolls were tested, they had been treated with modern castor oil in order to make the writing easier to read; it was argued that failure to remove the castor oil sufficiently would have caused the dates to be too young.

Multiple papers have been published both supporting and opposing the criticism. Soon after the publication of Libby's paper in Science , universities around the world began establishing radiocarbon-dating laboratories, and by the end of the s there were more than 20 active 14 C research laboratories.

It quickly became apparent that the principles of radiocarbon dating were valid, despite certain discrepancies, the causes of which then remained unknown. Taylor, " 14 C data made a world prehistory possible by contributing a time scale that transcends local, regional and continental boundaries". It provides more accurate dating within sites than previous methods, which usually derived either from stratigraphy or from typologies e.

The advent of radiocarbon dating may even have led to better field methods in archaeology, since better data recording leads to firmer association of objects with the samples to be tested. These improved field methods were sometimes motivated by attempts to prove that a 14 C date was incorrect.

Taylor also suggests that the availability of definite date information freed archaeologists from the need to focus so much of their energy on determining the dates of their finds, and led to an expansion of the questions archaeologists were willing to research.

For example, from the s questions about the evolution of human behaviour were much more frequently seen in archaeology. The dating framework provided by radiocarbon led to a change in the prevailing view of how innovations spread through prehistoric Europe. Researchers had previously thought that many ideas spread by diffusion through the continent, or by invasions of peoples bringing new cultural ideas with them.

As radiocarbon dates began to prove these ideas wrong in many instances, it became apparent that these innovations must sometimes have arisen locally. This has been described as a "second radiocarbon revolution", and with regard to British prehistory, archaeologist Richard Atkinson has characterized the impact of radiocarbon dating as "radical More broadly, the success of radiocarbon dating stimulated interest in analytical and statistical approaches to archaeological data.

Occasionally, radiocarbon dating techniques date an object of popular interest, for example the Shroud of Turin , a piece of linen cloth thought by some to bear an image of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion.

Three separate laboratories dated samples of linen from the Shroud in ; the results pointed to 14th-century origins, raising doubts about the shroud's authenticity as an alleged 1st-century relic. Researchers have studied other radioactive isotopes created by cosmic rays to determine if they could also be used to assist in dating objects of archaeological interest; such isotopes include 3 He , 10 Be , 21 Ne , 26 Al , and 36 Cl.

With the development of AMS in the s it became possible to measure these isotopes precisely enough for them to be the basis of useful dating techniques, which have been primarily applied to dating rocks. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Method of chronological dating using radioactive carbon isotopes. Calculation of radiocarbon dates. Calibration of radiocarbon dates. However, this pathway is estimated to be responsible for less than 0.

The definition of radiocarbon years is as follows: This effect is accounted for during calibration by using a different marine calibration curve; without this curve, modern marine life would appear to be years old when radiocarbon dated.

Similarly, the statement about land organisms is only true once fractionation is taken into account. For older datasets an offset of about 50 years has been estimated.

It can be cited as: Christie M, et al. Journal of the Franklin Institute. The possible confounding effects of contamination of parent and daughter isotopes have to be considered, as do the effects of any loss or gain of such isotopes since the sample was created.

It is therefore essential to have as much information as possible about the material being dated and to check for possible signs of alteration.

Alternatively, if several different minerals can be dated from the same sample and are assumed to be formed by the same event and were in equilibrium with the reservoir when they formed, they should form an isochron. This can reduce the problem of contamination. In uraniumólead dating , the concordia diagram is used which also decreases the problem of nuclide loss. Finally, correlation between different isotopic dating methods may be required to confirm the age of a sample.

For example, the age of the Amitsoq gneisses from western Greenland was determined to be 3. Accurate radiometric dating generally requires that the parent has a long enough half-life that it will be present in significant amounts at the time of measurement except as described below under "Dating with short-lived extinct radionuclides" , the half-life of the parent is accurately known, and enough of the daughter product is produced to be accurately measured and distinguished from the initial amount of the daughter present in the material.

The procedures used to isolate and analyze the parent and daughter nuclides must be precise and accurate. This normally involves isotope-ratio mass spectrometry. The precision of a dating method depends in part on the half-life of the radioactive isotope involved.

For instance, carbon has a half-life of 5, years. After an organism has been dead for 60, years, so little carbon is left that accurate dating cannot be established. On the other hand, the concentration of carbon falls off so steeply that the age of relatively young remains can be determined precisely to within a few decades.

If a material that selectively rejects the daughter nuclide is heated, any daughter nuclides that have been accumulated over time will be lost through diffusion , setting the isotopic "clock" to zero. The temperature at which this happens is known as the closure temperature or blocking temperature and is specific to a particular material and isotopic system.

These temperatures are experimentally determined in the lab by artificially resetting sample minerals using a high-temperature furnace. As the mineral cools, the crystal structure begins to form and diffusion of isotopes is less easy. At a certain temperature, the crystal structure has formed sufficiently to prevent diffusion of isotopes.

This temperature is what is known as closure temperature and represents the temperature below which the mineral is a closed system to isotopes. Thus an igneous or metamorphic rock or melt, which is slowly cooling, does not begin to exhibit measurable radioactive decay until it cools below the closure temperature. The age that can be calculated by radiometric dating is thus the time at which the rock or mineral cooled to closure temperature. This field is known as thermochronology or thermochronometry.

The mathematical expression that relates radioactive decay to geologic time is [12] [15]. The equation is most conveniently expressed in terms of the measured quantity N t rather than the constant initial value N o.

The above equation makes use of information on the composition of parent and daughter isotopes at the time the material being tested cooled below its closure temperature. This is well-established for most isotopic systems. Plotting an isochron is used to solve the age equation graphically and calculate the age of the sample and the original composition. Radiometric dating has been carried out since when it was invented by Ernest Rutherford as a method by which one might determine the age of the Earth.

In the century since then the techniques have been greatly improved and expanded. The mass spectrometer was invented in the s and began to be used in radiometric dating in the s. It operates by generating a beam of ionized atoms from the sample under test. The ions then travel through a magnetic field, which diverts them into different sampling sensors, known as " Faraday cups ", depending on their mass and level of ionization.

On impact in the cups, the ions set up a very weak current that can be measured to determine the rate of impacts and the relative concentrations of different atoms in the beams. Uraniumólead radiometric dating involves using uranium or uranium to date a substance's absolute age. This scheme has been refined to the point that the error margin in dates of rocks can be as low as less than two million years in two-and-a-half billion years.

Uraniumólead dating is often performed on the mineral zircon ZrSiO 4 , though it can be used on other materials, such as baddeleyite , as well as monazite see: Zircon has a very high closure temperature, is resistant to mechanical weathering and is very chemically inert.

Zircon also forms multiple crystal layers during metamorphic events, which each may record an isotopic age of the event. One of its great advantages is that any sample provides two clocks, one based on uranium's decay to lead with a half-life of about million years, and one based on uranium's decay to lead with a half-life of about 4.

This can be seen in the concordia diagram, where the samples plot along an errorchron straight line which intersects the concordia curve at the age of the sample. This involves the alpha decay of Sm to Nd with a half-life of 1. Accuracy levels of within twenty million years in ages of two-and-a-half billion years are achievable. This involves electron capture or positron decay of potassium to argon Potassium has a half-life of 1.

This is based on the beta decay of rubidium to strontium , with a half-life of 50 billion years. This scheme is used to date old igneous and metamorphic rocks , and has also been used to date lunar samples. Closure temperatures are so high that they are not a concern. Rubidium-strontium dating is not as precise as the uranium-lead method, with errors of 30 to 50 million years for a 3-billion-year-old sample.

A relatively short-range dating technique is based on the decay of uranium into thorium, a substance with a half-life of about 80, years.

It is accompanied by a sister process, in which uranium decays into protactinium, which has a half-life of 32, years. While uranium is water-soluble, thorium and protactinium are not, and so they are selectively precipitated into ocean-floor sediments , from which their ratios are measured. The scheme has a range of several hundred thousand years.

A related method is ioniumóthorium dating , which measures the ratio of ionium thorium to thorium in ocean sediment. Radiocarbon dating is also simply called Carbon dating.

Carbon is a radioactive isotope of carbon, with a half-life of 5, years, [25] [26] which is very short compared with the above isotopes and decays into nitrogen. Carbon, though, is continuously created through collisions of neutrons generated by cosmic rays with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere and thus remains at a near-constant level on Earth.

The carbon ends up as a trace component in atmospheric carbon dioxide CO 2. A carbon-based life form acquires carbon during its lifetime. Plants acquire it through photosynthesis , and animals acquire it from consumption of plants and other animals. When an organism dies, it ceases to take in new carbon, and the existing isotope decays with a characteristic half-life years.

The proportion of carbon left when the remains of the organism are examined provides an indication of the time elapsed since its death. This makes carbon an ideal dating method to date the age of bones or the remains of an organism. The carbon dating limit lies around 58, to 62, years.

The rate of creation of carbon appears to be roughly constant, as cross-checks of carbon dating with other dating methods show it gives consistent results. However, local eruptions of volcanoes or other events that give off large amounts of carbon dioxide can reduce local concentrations of carbon and give inaccurate dates.

The releases of carbon dioxide into the biosphere as a consequence of industrialization have also depressed the proportion of carbon by a few percent; conversely, the amount of carbon was increased by above-ground nuclear bomb tests that were conducted into the early s.

Also, an increase in the solar wind or the Earth's magnetic field above the current value would depress the amount of carbon created in the atmosphere.

This involves inspection of a polished slice of a material to determine the density of "track" markings left in it by the spontaneous fission of uranium impurities. The uranium content of the sample has to be known, but that can be determined by placing a plastic film over the polished slice of the material, and bombarding it with slow neutrons. This causes induced fission of U, as opposed to the spontaneous fission of U. The fission tracks produced by this process are recorded in the plastic film.

The uranium content of the material can then be calculated from the number of tracks and the neutron flux. This scheme has application over a wide range of geologic dates. For dates up to a few million years micas , tektites glass fragments from volcanic eruptions , and meteorites are best used. Older materials can be dated using zircon , apatite , titanite , epidote and garnet which have a variable amount of uranium content.

The technique has potential applications for detailing the thermal history of a deposit. The residence time of 36 Cl in the atmosphere is about 1 week. Thus, as an event marker of s water in soil and ground water, 36 Cl is also useful for dating waters less than 50 years before the present.

Luminescence dating methods are not radiometric dating methods in that they do not rely on abundances of isotopes to calculate age. Instead, they are a consequence of background radiation on certain minerals. Over time, ionizing radiation is absorbed by mineral grains in sediments and archaeological materials such as quartz and potassium feldspar. The radiation causes charge to remain within the grains in structurally unstable "electron traps".

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