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UAF Receives $3.5 million to Establish Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory

Apr 10, 2024 | News, Science

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UAF will receive $3.5 million in federal funding to establish Alaska’s first radiocarbon dating laboratory on the Troth Yeddha’ Campus. Currently, researchers must send samples to facilities as far away as Georgia, and it can take from two weeks to several months to receive results.

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“We have been pursuing this vision for several years,” says Matthew Wooller, director of UAF’s Alaska Stable Isotope Facility. “We are especially grateful to Lisa Murkowski for picking this up and advocating for it.”

The funds were included in House Resolution 4366 by Senator Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Congress passed the bill and it was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.

Researchers across many disciplines—including archaeology, engineering, geology, chemistry, and biology—use radiocarbon dating. At UAF, scientists need to date samples to investigate climate change, permafrost dynamics, coastal erosion, and other topics of particular interest in the Arctic.

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Radiocarbon dating determines the age of organic materials, like fossils or wood, by measuring the ratio of carbon isotopes. All living things ingest carbon-14, a radioactive form of the element that decays at a steady rate over time. By measuring the amount of carbon-14 compared to non-radioactive carbon, scientists can tell its age up to approximately 60,000 years. (Samples older than that have no carbon-14 left, so other dating techniques use other elements.)

The Alaska Stable Isotope Facility will house a nearly 10,000-pound mass spectrometer in the basement of the Usibelli Engineering Learning and Innovation building. It will take approximately a year for the massive instrument to be built and shipped from Switzerland to Alaska.

Access to a state-of-the-art radiocarbon dating lab located in Alaska will save researchers both time and money, according to Nicole Misarti, director of UAF’s Institute of Northern Engineering. Sending specimens out of state can cost from $350 to $500 per sample.

“One of the big advantages for Alaska is that we’ll be able to offer internal rates,” says Wooller. “Processing fees can eat up a grant very quickly, and now our researchers will be able to get more bang for their buck.”

The lab will also be available to researchers from other universities and federal and state agencies. Misarti says having the laboratory on campus will allow UAF researchers to involve their students in basic hands-on research. They’ll also be able to pursue innovative techniques for the carbon dating process itself.

“We’ll be able to push methodology in a way you can’t do without having the instrument here,” Misarti says. “Rather than just spitting out radiocarbon dates, we’ll be able to develop new techniques—new ways of prepping samples, for example.”

Wooller notes that Arctic researchers from around the world will benefit from having a state-of-the-art lab on the same campus as the extensive Arctic natural history collections at the UA Museum of the North. “Our museum has one of the largest skeletal collections in the world,” he says. “Providing accurate dates for all of those specimens will add tremendous value.”

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Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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