New carbon dating technology twice as fast, cheaper

Scientists have developed a new carbon dating system which is twice as fast as existing technologies and will “transform” the process. The new PIMS system halves the time it takes to date carbon-containing material from anywhere in the world, and is much simpler.

The new Positive Ion Mass Spectrometry (PIMS) system has been installed at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) in East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire.

Dr Richard Shanks, of SUERC, told media that “until now, carbon dating was a laborious procedure because of the preparation involved. We had to extract tiny samples from the material, whether a bone, piece of soil or a fibre, and burn the samples to turn them into carbon dioxide gas.”

“We then had to clean up the carbon dioxide, convert it to solid carbon, and measure the carbon-14 on a particle accelerator.

“PIMS is different from every other radiocarbon dating technique available. It’s a gas accepting system without the need for a high-energy particle accelerator.


What is carbon dating?

  • Carbon dating is used to determine the age of materials and artefacts of biological origin such as plants, fossils, bones, shells, soil and more – up to around 50,000 years old.
  • It works by measuring residual concentrations of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, in the material, which decrease over time. Every piece of organic material – including humans- contains a tiny amount of the radioactive isotope carbon-14.
  • Carbon-14 decays over time – it takes about 5,750 years for half of it to be gone – which means measuring how much is left tells you the age of a sample.
  • The problem is that existing radiocarbon dating techniques are expensive, energy intensive and use huge arrays of equipment.

What is new?

  • New technique uses a strong plasma to generate a large current of charged carbon atoms in a beam and a gas collision cell to flip the charge from positive to negative.
  • This way the beam is ‘cleaned’ and get enough carbon-14 to measure. Working with carbon dioxide gas saves preparation time and having no accelerator simplifies the instrument, so scientists don’t need a specialised laboratory.
  • The SUERC scientists have gone from working with a system the size of a large bus, to one the size of a small family car.
  • it promises faster measurements, cutting the time needed to process samples and produce a measurement and is also much more compact and significantly cheaper than the other carbon-dating technologies available.


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