Radioisotope Dating with a Cyclotron

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Science  29 Apr 1977:
Vol. 196, Issue 4289, pp. 489-494
DOI: 10.1126/science.196.4289.489


By considering radioisotope dating as a problem in trace element detection, and by using the cyclotron as a high-energy mass spectrometer for this purpose, we have shown that one can greatly increase the maximum age that can be determined while simultaneously reducing the size of the sample required. The cyclotron can be used to detect atoms or simple molecules that are present at the 10-16 level or greater. For 14C dating one should be able to go back 40,000 to 100,000 years with 1- to 100-mg carbon samples; for 10Be dating, 10 to 30 million years with 1-mm3 to 10-cm3 rock samples; for tritium dating, 160 years with a 1-liter water sample. The feasibility of the technique has been demonstrated experimentally by measuring the tritium/deuterium ratio in a sample 24 years old. For samples many half-lives old, the fractional error in the age is small even if rates of production or deposition of the isotopes.

Although cyclotrons are expensive to build, their operating costs are relatively low. If several samples are dated per hour the cost per date may not be substantially higher than it is today for decay dating. There are already more than 50 cyclotrons in operation which have the potential to do radioisotope dating, and their application to important problems of dating and trace element analysis should prove very fruitful.