Best isotope to use when dating very old samples

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).

In addition to various pre-treatments, the sample must be burned and converted to a form suitable for the counter.

The carbon-14 decays with its half-life of 5,700 years, while the amount of carbon-12 remains constant in the sample.

By looking at the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 in the sample and comparing it to the ratio in a living organism, it is possible to determine the age of a formerly living thing fairly precisely. So, if you had a fossil that had 10 percent carbon-14 compared to a living sample, then that fossil would be: t = [ ln (0.10) / (-0.693) ] x 5,700 years t = [ (-2.303) / (-0.693) ] x 5,700 years t = [ 3.323 ] x 5,700 years Because the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,700 years, it is only reliable for dating objects up to about 60,000 years old.

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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