Carbon dating radiation type
But no one had yet detected carbon-14 in nature— at this point, Korff and Libby’s predictions about radiocarbon were entirely theoretical.
In order to prove his concept of radiocarbon dating, Libby needed to confirm the existence of natural carbon-14, a major challenge given the tools then available.
Based on Korff’s estimation that just two neutrons were produced per second per square centimeter of earth’s surface, each forming a carbon-14 atom, Libby calculated a ratio of just one carbon-14 atom per every 10 carbon atoms on earth.
Libby’s next task was to study the movement of carbon through the carbon cycle.
In 1946, Willard Libby proposed an innovative method for dating organic materials by measuring their content of carbon-14, a newly discovered radioactive isotope of carbon.
Living organisms from today would have the same amount of carbon-14 as the atmosphere, whereas extremely ancient sources that were once alive, such as coal beds or petroleum, would have none left.
For organic objects of intermediate ages—between a few centuries and several millennia—an age could be estimated by measuring the amount of carbon-14 present in the sample and comparing this against the known half-life of carbon-14.
In a system where carbon-14 is readily exchanged throughout the cycle, the ratio of carbon-14 to other carbon isotopes should be the same in a living organism as in the atmosphere.
However, the rates of movement of carbon throughout the cycle were not then known.
Theoretically, if one could detect the amount of carbon-14 in an object, one could establish that object’s age using the half-life, or rate of decay, of the isotope.