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Another major application will be helping oil and gas exploration, using clumped isotope biochemistry to measure the quality or grade of hydrocarbon deposits, by determining how long the carbon has been there and at what temperature it formed, thus aiding the decision whether or not it will be profitable to exploit a new field.Similar techniques will be used to analyse methane, and Ellam says it will even enable researchers to establish whether a dinosaur was warm-blooded or cold-blooded, based on an analysis of fossilised remains – thus pinpointing when dinosaurs and birds went their separate ways as they evolved.Today, says Ellam, the teaching and research staff are a mix of different disciplines, including two specialists in biomedical research, four geologists, two physicists and three chemists.The total staff numbers 80 people, including technicians and post-graduate students.“The challenge is to find new opportunities,” says Ellam, “and identify new challenges.
As the technology evolves and the economies of scale allow researchers to install their own facilities, SUERC then looks for the next wave of high-tech equipment – a cycle which typically lasts for about 10–15 years.Scientists said the new PIMS system has halved the time it takes to date carbon-containing material from anywhere in the world, and is much simpler.Dr Richard Shanks, of SUERC, said: “Until now, carbon dating was a laborious procedure because of the preparation involved.We had to extract tiny samples from the material, whether a bone, piece of soil or a fibre, and burn the samples to turn them into carbon dioxide gas.“We then had to clean up the carbon dioxide, convert it to solid carbon, and measure the carbon-14 on a particle accelerator.“PIMS is different from every other radiocarbon dating technique available.
The new technique will refine conventional isotope records used to construct former sea temperature, but which are also affected by changes in other parameters – e.g. By extracting the temperature record from clumped isotopes, it will be possible to back-out other parameters with more confidence.