More than 5000 samples analysed at the Tandem Laboratory

2024-01-25

In 2023 the Tandem Laboratory at Uppsala University set a new record: more than 5000 samples were analysed with the help of radiocarbon dating. Researchers, museums, and companies from Sweden and the whole world sent samples to Uppsala to find out about the age of historical artefacts, to validate biofuels or to assess cell renewal in cutting edge medical research.

man who is working with a machine
Jonas Balkefors, research engineer at the Tandem laboratory prepares samples for carbon-14 analysis. Photo: Svenja Lohmann

The Tandem Laboratory is a national research infrastructure. While radiocarbon dating has been part of the laboratory’s activities since the 80s, an accelerator dedicated specifically to this technique was installed in 2014. In turn, capacities were freed for the laboratory’s second focus area – materials research.

“The high quality and reliability of the radiocarbon dating results, together with ongoing high global demand, has led to continuous growth of the number of analysed samples during the last years. In 2023 the milestone of 5000 annual samples was passed for the first time”, says Daniel Primetzhofer, director of the Tandem Laboratory.

hands who hold tweezers and test tube
More than 5000 samples were analysed with the help of radiocarbon dating during 2023. Photo: Svenja Lohmann

Radiocarbon dating builds on the fact that all living beings are made to a large extent of carbon. While a human, animal or a plant is alive, it constantly takes in carbon via food or the air. With death, the intake of carbon stops.

Radioactive decay turns a small part of the carbon, carbon-14, into nitrogen so the amount of carbon-14 gets lower and lower the more time passes. After 5730 years half of the carbon-14 atoms are decayed. Scientists use this fact and count carbon-14 atoms to find out when an organism died.

Remarkably diverse applications

Applications of radiocarbon dating are remarkably diverse. Archaeologists of course often need to find how old their artefacts are, and therefore also many museums send samples to the Tandem laboratory. They are not the only ones though: radiocarbon dating can help the police to discover if human remains belong to a modern crime victim or are historical.

“During 2023 the Tandem Laboratory also worked together with RISE Research institutes of Sweden. More than 180 samples containing biofuel and fossil fuels were measured, contributing to research on how we can move away from fossil fuels,” says Gustav Halldén, engineer at the Tandem Laboratory.

woman working by a machine
Melanie Mucke, 1st Research Engineer at the Tandem Laboratory, loads samples to be analyzed using a Micadas accelerator, which was installed in 2014. Photo: Svenja Lohmann

Modern radiocarbon dating techniques are very sensitive and due to recent advancements in specimen preparation at the laboratory only very small amounts of material are necessary to date an object. Often a few micrograms are enough. This competence is not only useful for not destroying for example an archaeological artefact but also means that it is possible to date highly specific tissue samples within medical research. Researchers from Karolinska Institute in collaboration with the Tandem Laboratory use this approach to study processes such as cell regeneration.

Dating the mummy of a small child

One of the samples dated at the Tandem Laboratory in 2023 belongs to the mummy of a small child. Results from the radiocarbon analysis confirmed that this child lived during the Ptolemaic period (332–30 BC), and that the mummy was not a more modern forgery, says Sofia Häggman, curator and Egyptologist specialised in mummies.

“Through radiocarbon dating, we can now not only date the body but also mummification techniques. Previously it was thought that the knowledge of mummification gradually died out in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period. Now we can safely say that this was not the case. On the contrary: even small children's bodies were treated with extreme care.”

The mummy and the results from radiocarbon dating will be part of a new exhibition about Ancient Egypt which will be shown at Gustavianum when the museum reopens in summer 2024.

The Tandem Laboratory

The Tandem Laboratory is a department of special character within the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Uppsala University. The laboratory is a national research infrastructure for world-leading materials analysis. Active in a wide range of fields, the Tandem Laboratory is serving our society on national and international level.

Find out more

The Tandem Laboratory

Svenja Lohmann