Best isotope to use when dating very old samples

Most samples require chemical pre-treatment to ensure their purity or to recover particular components of the material.

The objective of pre-treatment is to ensure that the carbon being analyzed is native to the sample submitted for dating.

­ ­As soon as a living organism dies, it stops taking in new carbon.

The ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 at the moment of death is the same as every other living thing, but the carbon-14 decays and is not replaced.

The ensuing atomic interactions create a steady supply of c14 that rapidly diffuses throughout the atmosphere.

Plants take up c14 along with other carbon isotopes during photosynthesis in the proportions that occur in the atmosphere; animals acquire c14 by eating the plants (or other animals).

Some types of samples require more extensive pre-treatment than others, and these methods have evolved over the first 50 years of radiocarbon dating.

Since carbon is fundamental to life, occurring along with hydrogen in all organic compounds, the detection of such an isotope might form the basis for a method to establish the age of ancient materials.

Libby, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago, predicted that a radioactive isotope of carbon, known as carbon-14, would be found to occur in nature.

This discovery meant that there are three naturally occurring isotopes of carbon: Whereas carbon-12 and carbon-13 are stable isotopes, carbon-14 is unstable or radioactive.

Carbon-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays bombard nitrogen atoms.

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