Did you know UA's cracking the code of the past with a brand-new radiocarbon dating lab?

June 11, 2024

The Fairbanks (UAF) is set to pioneer advanced isotopic research and innovation with the launch of its first radiocarbon dating laboratory on the Troth Yeddha’ Campus, thanks to a $3.5 million federal grant secured by Sen. Lisa Murkowski. 

The lab results from collaboration between UAF, Sen. Murkowski, the Murdoch Trust, and the National Science Foundation, representing a major investment in 's scientific exploration. It will become a hub for isotopic research, facilitating interdisciplinary collaborations and fostering a vibrant scientific community in . 

“You really need to have your own equipment to push research boundaries,” said Matthew Wooller, director of UAF’s Stable Isotope Facility. "This funding represents a significant milestone in our journey to unlock 's ancient past."

Matt Wooller holds a Woolly Mammoth tusk in Isotope lab on the UAF campusMathew Wooller holds up a Woolly mammoth tusk
that's been split open and used for education outreach in UAF’s Stable Isotope Facility

Radiocarbon dating: Cutting-edge technology
Radiocarbon dating determines the age of organic materials by measuring carbon-14 content, which decays over time. "We could take a little piece of your fingernail, and that would be more than enough sample to get an analysis on," says Wooller.

The lab features a mass spectrometer, weighing nearly 10,000 pounds and costing over $2.9 million. This state-of-the-art equipment, to be housed in the Usibelli Building, will take a year to be built and shipped from Switzerland.

Dr. Wooller's role:
Dr. Mathew Wooller, with more than two decades of experience, has been instrumental in this initiative. Since 2001, he’s managed the lab and conducted analyses for researchers worldwide, but has had to rely on shipping samples out-of-state for advanced analysis.

UAF scientists use carbon-14 dating in archaeology, engineering, geology, chemistry, and biology, studying Arctic issues like climate change, permafrost changes, and coastal erosion.

"We've radiocarbon dated some ducks from the North Slope," says Wooller. "They came back 2,000 years old due to ancient carbon from melting permafrost entering the food chain."

A fossilized woolley mammoth tooth“I like to describe it (fossilized Woolly Mammoth tooth)
as ice cream cones stacked on top of each other,” says Wooller


Local access and affordability:
Previously, researchers faced challenges and high costs of sending samples out of state. With the new lab at UAF, scientists will have local access to advanced equipment, reducing processing times and expenses. 

Educational opportunities:
The lab will be an educational resource for UAF students, providing hands-on experience with state-of-the-art equipment under Dr. Wooller's guidance. “We live far enough away that it's really difficult for students to get hands-on experience,” said Wooller.

fossilzed tusks, teeth in the UAF lab

A few of the nearly 1,000 Woolly Mammoth fossils at UAF

Interdisciplinary impact:
The lab's applications extend beyond academia to archaeological surveys, environmental assessments, and natural resource management. By accurately dating organic materials, researchers can gain insights into 's history and ecosystem dynamics, informing conservation efforts and development projects. The lab will also be able to serve federal agencies like the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Park Service.

Empowering future scientists:
The radiocarbon dating lab at UAF marks a significant milestone in 's scientific journey, empowering the next generation of scientists and ensuring remains at the forefront of scientific discovery.

Woolly Mammoth:
Wooller is also behind the campaign, funding radiocarbon dating of Woolly Mammoth fossils at the Museum of the North. Participants receive the dating results, sharing in the excitement of discovery.

A fossil discovery on St. Paul Island in suggests mammoths coexisted with humans up to 5,600 years ago. “That’s like yesterday,” says Wooller. “Human civilization was ramping up around that time.”

As UAF prepares to inaugurate the radiocarbon dating lab, stands on the cusp of a new era of scientific exploration. With cutting-edge technology, collaborative research efforts, and a commitment to education, the lab is poised to unlock 's ancient secrets and pave the way for a brighter future in scientific exploration.

"I can tell you the first sample we’re going to analyze. Can you guess what it is?" Wooller smiles, pointing to the mammoth tusks and bones on the exam table.

Go Deeper: