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This article is about the radioactive isotope. For the body tissue. The fraction of the radiation transmitted
scientic journal, see Radiocarbon (magazine). through the dead skin layer is estimated to be 0.11. Small
amounts of carbon-14 are not easily detected by typical
Carbon-14, C, or radiocarbon, is a radioactive iso- GeigerMller (G-M) detectors; it is estimated that G-M
detectors will not normally detect contamination of less
tope of carbon with a nucleus containing 6 protons and
8 neutrons. Its presence in organic materials is the basis than about 100 000 disintegration per minute (0.05 Ci).
Liquid scintillation counting is the preferred method.[5]
of the radiocarbon dating method pioneered by Willard
Libby and colleagues (1949) to date archaeological, geo- The G-M counting eciency is estimated [6]
to be 3%. The
logical and hydrogeological samples. Carbon-14 was dis- half-distance layer in water is 0.05 mm.
covered on 27 February 1940, by Martin Kamen and Sam
Ruben at the University of California Radiation Labo-
ratory in Berkeley. Its existence had been suggested by
Franz Kurie in 1934.[2] 2 Radiocarbon dating
There are three naturally occurring isotopes of carbon on
Earth: 99% of the carbon is carbon-12, 1% is carbon- Main article: Radiocarbon dating
13, and carbon-14 occurs in trace amounts, i.e., making
up about 1 or 1.5 atoms per 1012 atoms of the carbon in Radiocarbon dating is a radiometric dating method that
the atmosphere. The half-life of carbon-14 is 5,73040 uses (14 C) to determine the age of carbonaceous ma-
years.[3] Carbon-14 decays into nitrogen-14 through beta terials up to about 60,000 years old. The technique
decay.[4] A gram of carbon containing 1 atom of carbon- was developed by Willard Libby and his colleagues in
14 per 1012 atoms will emit 0.192 beta rays per second. 1949[7] during his tenure as a professor at the University
The primary natural source of carbon-14 on Earth is cos- of Chicago. Libby estimated that the radioactivity of ex-
mic ray action on nitrogen in the atmosphere, and it is changeable carbon-14 would be about 14 disintegrations
therefore a cosmogenic nuclide. However, open-air nu- per minute (dpm) per gram of pure carbon, and this is
clear testing between 19551980 contributed to this pool. still used as the activity of the modern radiocarbon stan-
The dierent isotopes of carbon do not dier appreciably dard. In 1960, Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize
in their chemical properties. This is used in chemical and in chemistry for this work.
biological research, in a technique called carbon label- One of the frequent uses of the technique is to date or-
ing: carbon-14 atoms can be used to replace nonradioac- ganic remains from archaeological sites. Plants x at-
tive carbon, in order to trace chemical and biochemical mospheric carbon during photosynthesis, so the level of
reactions involving carbon atoms from any given organic 14 C in plants and animals when they die approximately
compound. equals the level of 14 C in the atmosphere at that time.
However, it decreases thereafter from radioactive decay,
allowing the date of death or xation to be estimated.
1 Radioactive decay and detection The initial 14 C level for the calculation can either be es-
timated, or else directly compared with known year-by-
year data from tree-ring data (dendrochronology) up to
Carbon-14 goes through radioactive beta decay:
10,000 years ago (using overlapping data from live and
dead trees in a given area), or else from cave deposits
14 14 (speleothems), back to about 45,000 years before the
6 C 7 N + e + e
present. A calculation or (more accurately) a direct com-
By emitting an electron and an electron antineutrino, one parison of carbon-14 levels in a sample, with tree ring or
of the neutrons in the carbon-14 atom decays to a proton cave-deposit carbon-14 levels of a known age, then gives
and the carbon-14 (half-life of 5730 years) decays into the wood or animal sample age-since-formation.
the stable (non-radioactive) isotope nitrogen-14.
The emitted beta particles have a maximum energy of
156 keV, while their average energy is 49 keV. These
are relatively low energies; the maximum distance trav- 3 Origin
eled is estimated to be 22 cm in air and 0.27 mm in


3.1 Natural production in the atmosphere 3.2 Other carbon-14 sources

Carbon-14 can also be produced by other neutron
reactions, including in particular 13 C(n,gamma)14 C
++ + ++ +
and 17 O(n,alpha)14 C with thermal neutrons, and
++ + ++ +
1 + +
++ +
2 +
+ + +
N(n,d)14 C and 16 O(n,3 He)14 C with fast neutrons.[16]
The most notable routes for 14 C production by thermal
neutron irradiation of targets (e.g., in a nuclear reactor)
are summarized in the table.
++ ++ +
+ + +
+ Carbon-14 may also be radiogenic (cluster decay of
Ra, 224 Ra, 226 Ra). However, this origin is extremely
3 2 rare.

3.3 Formation during nuclear tests

1: Formation of carbon-14
2: Decay of carbon-14
3: The equal equation is for living organisms, and the unequal
SH: Wellington, New Zealand
one is for dead organisms, in which the C-14 then decays (See 220 NH: Vermuntsee, Austria
PTBT 10-Oct-1963 natural level

Carbon-14 is produced in the upper layers of the 180

pMC/ percent

troposphere and the stratosphere by thermal neutrons ab-

sorbed by nitrogen atoms. When cosmic rays enter the at-
mosphere, they undergo various transformations, includ- 140
ing the production of neutrons. The resulting neutrons
(1 n) participate in the following reaction: 120

n + 14 N 14 C + 1 p 1945 1950 1955 1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000
Year (AD)

The highest rate of carbon-14 production takes place at Atmospheric 14 C, New Zealand[18] and Austria.[19] The New
altitudes of 9 to 15 km (30,000 to 49,000 ft) and at high Zealand curve is representative for the Southern Hemisphere, the
geomagnetic latitudes. Austrian curve is representative for the Northern Hemisphere. At-
mospheric nuclear weapon tests almost doubled the concentration
As of 2014, the rate of 14 C production was poorly known of 14 C in the Northern Hemisphere.[20]
while the reaction can be modelled[10] and the results
agree with the global carbon budget that can be used to The above-ground nuclear tests that occurred in several
backtrack,[11] attempts to directly measure the production countries between 1955 and 1980 (see nuclear test list)
rate had not agreed with these models very well. Pro- dramatically increased the amount of carbon-14 in the
duction rates vary because of changes to the cosmic ray atmosphere and subsequently in the biosphere; after the
ux incident, such as supernovae, and due to variations tests ended, the atmospheric concentration of the isotope
in the Earths magnetic eld. The latter can create sig- began to decrease.
nicant variations in 14 C production rates, although the
changes of the carbon cycle can make these eects di- One side-eect of the change in atmospheric carbon-
cult to tease out.[11][12] 14 is that this has enabled some options (e.g. bomb-
pulse dating[21] ) for determining the birth year of an in-
The natural atmospheric yield of 14 C has been estimated dividual, in particular, the amount of carbon-14 in tooth
to be about 22 000 atoms 14 C per meter square of the enamel,[22][23] or the carbon-14 concentration in the lens
surface of the earth per second, resulting in the global of the eye.[24]
production rate of about 1 PBq/a.[13] Another estimate
of the average production rate[14] gives a value of 20 500
atoms m2 s1 . More recent work, however, suggests that
the use of outdated cosmic ray spectra has led to an over-
4 Occurrence
estimation of C yield and revised the estimate down to
between 16 400 to 18 800 atoms 14 C per meter square.[10] 4.1 Dispersion in the environment
Occasional spikes are possible; for example, there is ev-
idence for an unusual 10-fold increase of the production After production in the upper atmosphere, the carbon-14
rate in AD 774775.[15] atoms react rapidly to form mostly (about 93%) 14 CO
4.4 In the human body 3

(carbon monoxide), which subsequently oxidizes at a 4.4 In the human body

slower rate to form 14 CO2 , radioactive carbon dioxide.
The gas mixes rapidly and becomes evenly distributed Since essentially all sources of human food are derived
throughout the atmosphere (the mixing timescale in the from plants, the carbon that comprises our bodies con-
order of weeks). Carbon dioxide also dissolves in water tains carbon-14 at the same concentration as the atmo-
and thus permeates the oceans, but at a slower rate.[12] sphere. The rates of disintegration of potassium-40 and
The atmospheric half-life for removal of 14 CO2 has been carbon-14 in the normal adult body are comparable (a
estimated to be roughly 12 to 16 years in the northern few thousand disintegrated nuclei per second).[31] The
hemisphere. The transfer between the ocean shallow beta-decays from external (environmental) radiocarbon
layer and the large reservoir of bicarbonates in the ocean contribute approximately 0.01 mSv/year (1 mrem/year)
depths occurs at a limited rate.[17] In 2009 the activity of to each persons dose of ionizing radiation.[32] This is
C was 238 Bq per kg carbon of fresh terrestrial biomat- small compared to the doses from potassium-40 (0.39
ter, close to the values before atmospheric nuclear testing mSv/year) and radon (variable).
(226 Bq/kg C; 1950).[25]
Carbon-14 can be used as a radioactive tracer in
medicine. In the initial variant of the urea breath test,
4.2 Total inventory a diagnostic test for Helicobacter pylori, urea labeled with
approximately 37 kBq (1.0 Ci) carbon-14 is fed to a pa-
The inventory of carbon-14 in Earths biosphere is about tient (i.e. 37,000 decays per second). In the event of a H.
300 megacuries (11 EBq), of which most is in the pylori infection, the bacterial urease enzyme breaks down
oceans.[26] The following inventory of carbon-14 has the urea into ammonia and radioactively-labeled carbon
been given:[13] dioxide, which can be detected by low-level counting of
the patients breath.[33] The 14-C urea breath test has been
largely replaced by the 13-C urea breath test, which has
Global inventory: ~8500 PBq (about 50 t) no radiation issues.
Atmosphere: 140 PBq (840 kg)
Terrestrial materials: the balance
5 See also
From nuclear testing (till 1990): 220 PBq (1.3 t)
Isotopic labeling
4.3 In fossil fuels
Radiocarbon dating
Most man-made chemicals are made of fossil fuels, such
as petroleum or coal, in which the carbon-14 should have
long since decayed. However, such deposits often con- 6 References
tain trace amounts of carbon-14 (varying signicantly,
but ranging up to 1% the ratio found in living organ- [1] Waptstra, A.H.; Audi, G. and Thibault, C. AME atomic
isms, a concentration comparable to an apparent age of mass evaluation 2003. Retrieved 2007-06-03.
40,000).[27] This may indicate possible contamination by
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14 12

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In connection with building the Borexino solar neutrino celerator Mass Spectrometry Facility. Retrieved 2007-
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[5] Radiation Safety Manual for Laboratory Users, Ap-
In the Borexino Counting Test Facility, a 14 C/12 C ratio pendix B: The Characteristics of Common Radioiso-
of 1.941018 was determined;[29] probable reactions re- topes, Princeton University.
sponsible for varied levels of 14 C in dierent petroleum
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discussed by Bonvicini et al.[30] Michigan.

[7] Arnold, J. R. and Libby, W. F. (1949). Age De- [21] Bomb-Pulse Dating of Human Material: Modeling the
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with Samples of Known Age,. Science 110
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doi:10.1126/science.110.2869.678. PMID 15407879. Say. National Geographic News. 2005-09-22.

[8] Carbon 14:age calculation. Retrieved [23] Spalding KL, Buchholz BA, Bergman LE, Druid H,
2007-06-11. Frisen J. (2005-09-15). Forensics: age written in
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[9] Class notes for Isotope Hydrology EESC W 4886: Ra- 4. Bibcode:2005Natur.437..333S. doi:10.1038/437333a.
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[24] Lynnerup, Niels; Kjeldsen, Henrik; Heegaard, Stef-
[10] Kovaltsov, Gennady A.; Mishev, Alexander; Usoskin, fen; Jacobsen, Christina; Heinemeier, Jan (2008).
Ilya G. (2012). A new model of cosmogenic produc- Gazit, Ehud, ed. Radiocarbon Dating of the Hu-
tion of radiocarbon 14C in the atmosphere. Earth man Eye Lens Crystallines Reveal Proteins without
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[11] Hain, Mathis P.; Sigman, Daniel M.; Haug, Gerald
H. (2014). Distinct roles of the Southern Ocean and
[25] Carbon-14 and the environment. Institute for Radiolog-
North Atlantic in the deglacial atmospheric radiocar-
ical Protection and Nuclear Safety.
bon decline (PDF). Earth and Planetary Science Let-
ters 394: 198208. Bibcode:2014E&PSL.394..198H. [26] Human Health Fact Sheet Carbon 14 (PDF). Argonne
doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2014.03.020. ISSN 0012-821X. National Laboratory, EVS. August 2005.
[12] Ramsey, C. Bronk (2008). Radiocarbon Dating: Rev- [27] Lowe, David (1989). Problems associated with the use
olutions in Understanding. Archaeometry 50 (2): 249 of coal as a source of C14-free background material. Ra-
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[13] Choppin, G.R.; Liljenzin, J.O. and Rydberg, J. (2002)
[28] Jull, A. J. T.; Barker, D.; Donahue, D. J. (1985). Carbon-
Radiochemistry and Nuclear Chemistry, 3rd edition,
14 Abundances in Uranium Ores and Possible Sponta-
Butterworth-Heinemann, ISBN 978-0-7506-7463-8.
neous Exotic Emission from U-Series Nuclides. Mete-
[14] Masarik, J.; Beer, J. (2009). An updated simula- orics 20: 676. Bibcode:1985Metic..20..676J.
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tion in the Earths atmosphere. Journal of Geophys- [29] Alimonti, G.; et al. (1998). Measurement of the
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aki; Nakamura, Toshio (2012). A signature of
cosmic-ray increase in ad 774775 from tree rings in [30] Bonvicini, G, Harris, N and Paolone, V, The chem-
Japan (PDF). Nature. Bibcode:2012Natur.486..240M. ical history of 14 C in deep oilelds, August 2003.
doi:10.1038/nature11123. (arXiv:hep-ex/0308025)

[16] Davis W., Jr. (1977) Carbon-14 production in nuclear [31] THE RADIOACTIVITY OF THE NORMAL ADULT
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[32] NCRP Report No. 93 (1987). Ionizing Radiation Expo-
[17] Yim, Man-Sung; Caron, Franois (2006). Life cy- sure of the Population of the United States. National Coun-
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14 Urea Breath Test (PDF). 2001-06-23. Re-
[18] Atmospheric 14 C record from Wellington. Trends: A trieved 2007-07-04.
Compendium of Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide
Information Analysis Center (Oak Ridge National Labo-
ratory). 1994. Retrieved 2007-06-11.
7 Further reading
[19] Levin, I.; et al. (1994). "14 C record from Vermunt.
Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change. Car-
Kamen, Martin D. (1985). Radiant Science, Dark
bon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.
Politics: A Memoir of the Nuclear Age. Berkeley:
[20] Radiocarbon dating. University of Utrecht. Retrieved University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-04929-
2008-02-19. 2.

8 External links
What is Carbon Dating?, Woods Hole Oceano-
graphic Institute

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File:Radiocarbon_bomb_spike.svg Source: Li-
cense: Public domain Contributors:
Manning, M.R., and W.H. Melhuish. 1994. Atmospheric 14C record from Wellington. In Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global
Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn.,
U.S.A. Original artist: Hokanomono

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