Radiocarbon dating error margin

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. In this method, the carbon sample is first converted to carbon dioxide gas before measurement in gas proportional counters takes place.

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.

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. Libby who first measured radiocarbon’s rate of decay and established 5568 years ± 30 years as the half-life. Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of his efforts to develop radiocarbon dating.1.

The method does not count beta particles but the number of carbon atoms present in the sample and the proportion of the isotopes. 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.

Plants and animals assimilate carbon 14 from carbon dioxide throughout their lifetimes.

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 -25.0 per mille relative to the ratio of carbon 12/carbon 13 in the carbonate standard VPDB – Cretaceous belemnite formation at Peedee in South Carolina, (d) zero BP (Before Present) is defined as AD 1950, and (e) the assumption that global radiocarbon levels are constant.

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. Some inorganic matter, like a shell’s aragonite component, can also be dated as long as the mineral’s formation involved assimilation of carbon 14 in equilibrium with the atmosphere.

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