Radiocarbon Laboratory

Accelerator Mass Spectrometry at Penn State

Penn State's Radiocarbon Laboratory provides radiocarbon measurements on carbon-bearing materials spanning the last 45,000 years. This includes materials such as wood, charcoal, bone, carbonates, and soils from the Pleistocene and Holocene time periods.

The lab's services are available to Penn State researchers and external academic and industrial clients.

Our lab staff can assist with developing research designs, sampling strategies, and analysis of radiocarbon data at every stage of their projects from conception to conclusion. Additionally, they have extensive experience using radiocarbon in diverse fields including:

  • Archaeology
  • Geology
  • Paleontology
  • Paleoecology
  • Art History
  • Climate Reconstruction

Our collaborations on interdisciplinary projects have been published in multiple journals, including Science, Nature Geoscience, PNAS, Quaternary Science Reviews, and Quaternary Research.

Work with us

The Radiocarbon Lab is available to assist both Penn State researchers and external clients from industry, government, and other universities. Get started:

For new clients For existing clients

What is radiocarbon dating?

All living things contain radiocarbon or 14C. When an organism stops incorporating carbon from the environment into its cells and molecules—usually when the organism dies—the amount of 14C begins to decrease as 14C decays into nitrogen. The rate of this decay is also known as the half-life. Radiocarbon dating is carried out by measuring the ratio of radioactive 14C to stable 12C to estimate the age of organic carbon-containing material.

Capabilities

The Radiocarbon Lab at Penn State offers preparation and high-precision 14C measurement on relatively small samples of the following materials.

Material

Recommended amount

wood (unburned)

20-100 mg

charcoal

5-50 mg

bulk sediment/peat

10-100 g

bone

200-1000 mg

bone collagen

>5 mg

hair/fibers

10-100 mg

carbonates

25-50 mg

calcined bone

1-5 g

The Radiocarbon Lab produces precise and accurate radiocarbon measurements. However, that 14C/12C ratio will be most useful if your samples are carefully chosen to answer your research question. 

Contact the Radiocarbon Lab staff with questions about samples, including which samples would be most informative, what types of samples should be collected and how, or what type of organic material from a mixed sample is the best to analyze. Please provide as much information about the research question as possible in order to allow lab staff to fully assist. 

Our Guide to Radiocarbon Sampling is a handy summary of how to avoid the common pitfalls of radiocarbon collection. 

Radiocarbon Laboratory in Action

Research collaborations with the Radiocarbon Laboratory

Unlocking a mystery

Using Penn State's Accelerator Mass Spectrometer, lab staff discovered that ancient bones surrounding a lake in India were from different time periods and different regions of the world.

When did maize become a staple?

An international team, including the Penn State Radiocarbon Lab, discovered that maize has been a dietary staple a lot longer than previous data showed.

Ancient DNA

Penn State's Radiocarbon Lab helped identify 89 individuals who lived between 500 and 9,000 years ago, some of which were newly sequenced. This included pre-colonial Moche, Nasca, Wari, Tiwanaku, and Inca populations.

Radiocarbon Lab Staff

Address

Radiocarbon Laboratory
Land and Water Research Building
100 Hastings Road
University Park, PA 16802