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Country’s first machine for carbon dating ready

BHUBANESWAR, Oct 13: The scientists at the Institute of Physics here have built the country's first multidisciplinary accelerator mass sp...

Written by Debabrata Mohanty |
October 14, 1998

BHUBANESWAR, Oct 13: The scientists at the Institute of Physics here have built the country’s first multidisciplinary accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS). The machine would be used for carbon dating, commonly employed by scientists to determine the age of old rocks.

Named MUDRA (Multidisciplinary Research Accelarator), the AMS would have various applications in climatology, geophysics, earth sciences, planetary sciences, ground water movement, archaeology, biomedicine and oceanography besides radioactive dating. Currently all the laboratories in the country employ the conventional method of decay counting, where the radioactive isotopes of carbon — C-14, C-13 and C-12 — are counted over a long period and age of the sample predicted.

“It’s first time in the country that such a system has been developed. Forty scientists in the country are already waiting for our green signal so that they can test their samples,” said director of the institute, Surjyo N Behera.

MUDRA, built by a team headed by Dr D PMahapatra, would start functioning by the end of December this year. However he added that the final testing will be done in the next ten days. Apart from Dr Mahapatra, the team had four research scholars and two technicians. The project has been jointly funded by Department of Atomic Energy, Department of Space, Department of Science and Technology and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

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Though an AMS was first installed at the institute in 1992, it lacked a multisource cathode plate. Only one sample could be tested at a time. So the research team at the Ion Beam Laboratory put its heads together and came out with a new ion source part with a multicathode MC-SNICS. Then it was connected with the AMS. Thus was born MUDRA. “With the advent of MUDRA, we can test 40 samples at a time,” said Dr Mahapatra.

According to Dr Mahapatra, though most of the components of the Ion Source Part of MUDRA were imported from Denmark (magnets), Germany (turbo pump), Switzerland (valve) and Japan (power supplysystem), everything was assembled at the Ion Beam Laboratory within two weeks in August. “Had we bought the Ion Source Part from abroad, it would have cost not less than Rs 20 crore. But here we made it at a meagre Rs 1.8 crore,” said Dr Mahapatra.

In the conventional method of decay counting, a sample whose age is to be determined, is first burned into carbon. The carbon is then turned into pure carbon dioxide gas and after a series of chemical tests it is then turned into carbon powder. The radioactive isotopes of the carbon that decay in this powder are then counted by using the mass spectrometry method. From that the age of the sample is calculated.

“The decay counting process is very cumbersome since one has to wait for a very long time to know the age of a particular sample. In this method a large amount of the sample has to be collected since once the sample is burnt the amount lessens and it becomes very difficult to analyse. Also the level of precision in the MUDRA method is much more higher(10 billion times) than the decay counting one,” said Dr Behera. He added that 20 archaeological dates can be predicted in six months’ time.

Dr Mahapatra said that the MUDRA method is not destructive since the sample is not burnt into carbon. A few miligrams of the sample are put on the cathode plate and analysed in the accelarator. Then the data are processed in the computers and the age of the sample determined.

Director Dr Behera added that a lot of archaelogical dates that are yet to be established can easily be confirmed with the help of this new technique.

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First published on: 14-10-1998 at 12:00:00 am

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