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Radiocarbon dating limits

The Limitations of Carbon Dating

In this method, the sample is in liquid form and a scintillator is added. This scintillator produces a flash of light when it interacts with a beta particle. A vial with a sample is passed between two photomultipliers, and only when both devices register the flash of light that a count is made.

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Accelerator mass spectrometry AMS is a modern radiocarbon dating method that is considered to be the more efficient way to measure radiocarbon content of a sample. In this method, the carbon 14 content is directly measured relative to the carbon 12 and carbon 13 present.

Radiocarbon Dating

The method does not count beta particles but the number of carbon atoms present in the sample and the proportion of the isotopes. Not all materials can be radiocarbon dated. Most, if not all, organic compounds can be dated.

Samples that have been radiocarbon dated since the inception of the method include charcoal , wood , twigs, seeds , bones , shells , leather, peat , lake mud, soil , hair, pottery , pollen , wall paintings, corals, blood residues, fabrics , paper or parchment, resins, and water , among others. Physical and chemical pretreatments are done on these materials to remove possible contaminants before they are analyzed for their radiocarbon content.

The radiocarbon age of a certain sample of unknown age can be determined by measuring its carbon 14 content and comparing the result to the carbon 14 activity in modern and background samples. The principal modern standard used by radiocarbon dating labs was the Oxalic Acid I obtained from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.

This oxalic acid came from sugar beets in When the stocks of Oxalic Acid I were almost fully consumed, another standard was made from a crop of French beet molasses. Over the years, other secondary radiocarbon standards have been made. Radiocarbon activity of materials in the background is also determined to remove its contribution from results obtained during a sample analysis.

Background samples analyzed are usually geological in origin of infinite age such as coal, lignite, and limestone. A radiocarbon measurement is termed a conventional radiocarbon age CRA. The CRA conventions include a usage of the Libby half-life, b usage of Oxalic Acid I or II or any appropriate secondary standard as the modern radiocarbon standard, c correction for sample isotopic fractionation to a normalized or base value of These values have been derived through statistical means. American physical chemist Willard Libby led a team of scientists in the post World War II era to develop a method that measures radiocarbon activity.


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He is credited to be the first scientist to suggest that the unstable carbon isotope called radiocarbon or carbon 14 might exist in living matter. Libby and his team of scientists were able to publish a paper summarizing the first detection of radiocarbon in an organic sample. It was also Mr. Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of his efforts to develop radiocarbon dating.

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Discovery of Radiocarbon Dating accessed October 31, Sheridan Bowman, Radiocarbon Dating: Interpreting the Past , University of California Press. Any small uncertainty in the measurements, in the amount of contamination or any other source of small error such as fluctuations in the naturally occurring 14 to 12 C ratio could easily be magnified into a huge age error in an old sample with a very small amount of carbon 14 present.

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Carbon 14 Dating Limitations

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