"That would allow us to track the sources and fates of carbon at the molecular scale." .
Once the initial equipment is in place and operating properly, refinements and additions will be made to broaden its potential applications.
"Eventually, we'd like to be able to look at individual molecules," says Freeman.
Katherine Freeman, distinguished professor of geosciences at Penn State, uses it to follow crude oil compounds released from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that were taken up by microbes living in sediments of the Gulf of Mexico.
More traditional uses of carbon dating also benefit from an AMS, because it provides more precise measurements of carbon-14 than other methods, and it can do so with incredibly tiny samples -- as small as 1 milligram.
After thorough cleaning, a small amount of the material is vacuum-sealed in a quartz tube, which is then heated to a high temperature to convert the material to carbon dioxide, water, and nitrous oxides.