The use of a combination of mass spectrometers and an accelerator to measure the natural abundances of very rare radioactive isotopes. These abundances are frequently lower than parts per trillion. The most important applications of accelerator mass spectrometry are in archeological and geophysical studies, as, for example, in radiocarbon dating by the counting of the rare carbon-14 (radiocarbon; 14C ) isotope.
The advantage of counting the radioactive atoms themselves rather than their decay products is well illustrated by radiocarbon dating, which requires the measurement of the number of 14C atoms in a sample. The long half-life of 5730 years for 14C implies that only 15 beta-particle emissions per minute are observed from 1 g of contemporary carbon. However, an accelerator mass spectrometer can be used to count the 14C atoms at over 15 per second from a milligram sample of carbon. Consequently, accelerator mass spectrometry can be used to date samples that are a thousand times smaller than those that are dated by using the beta-particle counting method, and the procedure is carried out about 120 times faster.
For the study of many rare radioactive atoms, accelerator mass spectrometry also has the important advantage that there can be no background except for contamination with the species being studied. For example, significant interference with the betaparticle counting of radiocarbon from cosmic rays and natural radioactivity occurs for carbon samples about 25,000 years old. In contrast, accelerator mass spectrometer measurements are affected only by the natural contamination of the sample which becomes serious for samples about 50,000 years old.
Apparatus. The success of accelerator mass spectrometry results from the use of more than one stage of mass spectrometry and at least two stages of ion acceleration. The illustration shows the layout of an ideal accelerator mass spectrometer for radiocarbon studies, divided for convenience into three stages.
The first part of the accelerator mass spectrometer is very similar to a conventional mass spectrometer. In the second stage, a tandem accelerator first accelerates negative ions to the central high-voltage electrode, converts them into positive ions by several successive collisions with gas molecules in a region of higher gas pressure, known as a stripping canal, and then further accelerates the multiply charged positive ions through the same voltage difference back to ground potential. In the third stage, the accelerated ions are analyzed further by the high-energy mass spectrometer.
Distinguishing features. The features that clearly distinguish accelerator mass spectrometry from conventional mass spectrometry are the elimination of molecular ions and isobars from the mass spectrometry.
A tandem accelerator provides a convenient way of completely eliminating molecular ions from the mass spectrometry because ions of a few megaelectronvolts can lose several electrons on passing through the region of higher gas pressure in the stripping canal. Molecules with more than two electrons missing have not been observed, so that accelerator mass spectrometry utilizing charge -3 ions is free of molecular interferences.
The use of a negative-ion source, which is necessary for tandem acceleration, can also ensure the complete separation of atoms of nearly identical mass (isobars). In the case of radiocarbon analysis, the abundant stable 14N ions and the very rare radioactive 14C ions are separated completely because the negative ion of nitrogen is unstable whereas the negative ion of carbon is stable. In other cases, it is possible to count the ions without any background in the ion detectors because of their high energy. In many cases, it is also possible to identify the ion.