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ScienceWise - Sep/Oct 2007

State of the Art Radiocarbon Dating facility Opens

Article Illustration
Dr Stewart Fallon outside the cage that protects users from the high voltage used in the accelerator

The Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES) and the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering (RSPSE) have recently established a state-of-the-art particle accelerator – a Single Stage Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (SSAMS) for measuring radiocarbon in materials.

Carbon 14, also known as radiocarbon, is a radioactive form of carbon found in all living things. Simply being alive means you will have some in you. That is great news for scientists wanting to find out how old biological materials are because by measuring the amount of radiocarbon present in a sample it is possible to estimate how long that material has been around.

Living animals depend on carbon. Plants absorb it when they photosynthesise. Animals take it in when they eat the plants. Shellfish absorb it from the surrounding water and secrete it in their shells, and corals use it to build their skeletons. Throughout an animal or a plant’s life it takes in carbon and stores it in its tissues. This stored carbon exists at the same ratio as the carbon in their surrounding environment that is roughly one atom of carbon 14 for every trillion atoms of normal carbon.

When the organism dies it stops metabolic activity and accrues no more carbon. This is when the radiocarbon clock starts ticking because over time the carbon 14 atoms decay but the normal carbon atoms stay the same. So the number of carbon 14 atoms decreases and the ratio of carbon 14 to normal carbon decreases in a predictable manner.

“At the moment there are only a few places in the world that are directly using CO2 samples for radiocarbon dating so our research will be at the leading edge,” says Dr Stewart Fallon from the RSES.

SSAMS arrived at RSES at the beginning of 2007. Setting it up and getting it operational has taken several months and it was officially launched at the end of June.

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