What is the radioactive dating method


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Carbon 14 is continually being formed in the upper atmosphere by the effect of cosmic ray neutrons on nitrogen 14 atoms. It is rapidly oxidized in air to form carbon dioxide and enters the global carbon cycle. Plants and animals assimilate carbon 14 from carbon dioxide throughout their lifetimes.

Radiometric dating - Wikipedia

When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of radioactive decay. Radiocarbon dating is essentially a method designed to measure residual radioactivity. By knowing how much carbon 14 is left in a sample, the age of the organism when it died can be known. It must be noted though that radiocarbon dating results indicate when the organism was alive but not when a material from that organism was used.

There are three principal techniques used to measure carbon 14 content of any given sample— gas proportional counting, liquid scintillation counting, and accelerator mass spectrometry. Gas proportional counting is a conventional radiometric dating technique that counts the beta particles emitted by a given sample.

Beta particles are products of radiocarbon decay. In this method, the carbon sample is first converted to carbon dioxide gas before measurement in gas proportional counters takes place.

Radiometric Dating

Liquid scintillation counting is another radiocarbon dating technique that was popular in the s. In this method, the sample is in liquid form and a scintillator is added.


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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.

Radiocarbon dating

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. 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.


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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.

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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. When living tissue dies the Carbon 14 begins to slowly decay. After 40, years there isn't enough of it left to accurately measure, so to date anything much older requires use of one or more of the other age-determination methods.

The Carbon 14 test would be inappropriate for something like, say, granite because what we already know about granite is that it is too old and of the wrong composition for that test. But the granite may very well contain traces of the elements Uranium, Rubidium, or Potassium, and a test using one or more of those isotope procedures may well be appropriate and yield good results. Some of the techniques for determining absolute age are listed in the graphic below, adapted from a September, National Geographic Magazine chart and article.

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