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C-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when nitrogen-14 (N-14) is altered through the effects of cosmic radiation bombardment (a proton is displaced by a neutron effectively changing the nitrogen atom into a carbon isotope).
The new isotope is called "radiocarbon" because it is radioactive, though it is not dangerous.
Since the 1940s, scientists have used carbon dating to determine the age of fossils, identify vintages of wine and whiskey, and explore other organic artifacts like wood and ivory.
The technique involves comparing the level of one kind of carbon atom—one that decays over time—with the level of another, more stable kind of carbon atom.
Archaeologists have long used carbon-14 dating (also known as radiocarbon dating) to estimate the age of certain objects.
Traditional radiocarbon dating is applied to organic remains between 500 and 50,000 years old and exploits the fact that trace amounts of radioactive carbon are found in the natural environment.
Accelerator mass spectrometry measures the amount of carbon-14, or radiocarbon, present in a sample, which can be used to calculate its age.
Around the world, only about 100 facilities house this equipment.
Forensic anthropologists at The University of Arizona took advantage of this fact in a recent study funded by NIJ.The approach shows promise as a measurement tool in many fields, including carbon dating and greenhouse gas detection.