UAF receives $3.5 million to establish radiocarbon dating laboratory

A large fossilized tooth sits on a laboratory table in front of a man and woman wearing white lab coats and black rubber gloves. The woman holds a drill and the man holds a specimen bottle.
Photo by Audrey Rowe
Nicole Misarti and Matthew Wooller prepare a wooly mammoth tooth sample for radiocarbon dating. With $3.5 million in federal funds, UAF will establish the first radiocarbon dating laboratory in Alaska.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks will receive $3.5 million in federal funding to establish Alaska’s first radiocarbon dating laboratory on the Troth Yeddha’ Campus. 

The funds were included in H.R. 4366 by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.

“We have been pursuing this vision for several years,” said Matthew Wooller, director of UAF’s Alaska Stable Isotope Facility. “We are especially grateful to Lisa Murkowski for picking this up and advocating for it.”

The lab, which will house a nearly 10,000-pound mass spectrometer, will be located in the basement of the Usibelli Building. It will take approximately a year for the massive instrument to be built and shipped from Switzerland to Alaska.

Radiocarbon dating is a method of determining the age of organic materials like fossils or wood. All living things contain carbon-14, a radioactive form of the element that decays at a steady rate over time. By measuring the amount of carbon-14 remaining in a sample, scientists can tell its age up to approximately 60,000 years.

Carbon-14 dating is commonly used by researchers across many disciplines, including archaeology, engineering, geology, chemistry and biology. UAF scientists use the technique to investigate climate change, permafrost dynamics, coastal erosion and other topics of particular interest in the Arctic.

Access to a state-of-the-art radiocarbon dating lab located in Alaska will save researchers both time and money, according to Nicole Misarti, director of UAF’s Institute of Northern Engineering.

At present, samples must be sent to facilities as far away as Georgia, and it can take from two weeks to several months to receive results. Processing costs can range from $350 to $500 per sample.

“One of the big advantages for Alaska is that we’ll be able to offer internal rates,” Wooller said. “Processing fees can eat up a grant very quickly, and now our researchers will be able to get more bang for their buck.” The lab will also be available to researchers from other universities and federal and state agencies.

Misarti said that having the laboratory on campus will allow UAF researchers to involve their students in basic hands-on research. They’ll also be able to pursue innovative techniques for the carbon dating process itself. 

“We’ll be able to push methodology in a way you can’t do without having the instrument here,” she said. “Rather than just spitting out radiocarbon dates, we’ll be able to develop new techniques — new ways of prepping samples, for example.”

Wooller noted that Arctic researchers from around the world will benefit from having a state-of-the-art lab on the same campus as the extensive Arctic natural history collections at the UA Museum of the North. “Our museum has one of the largest skeletal collections in the world,” he said. “Providing accurate dates for all of those specimens will add tremendous value.” 

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Matthew Wooller,, 907-474-8786; Nicole Misarti,, 907-474-5457