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"Our group collaborated with other research groups in the U. S., Japan and Switzerland for the theoretical analysis and to study quantum cascade lasers." The researchers are continuing to refine their instrument and explore new applications. The new technique can deliver results in just two hours, with each test costing about half what it would if conducted using an accelerator mass spectrometer.

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"Accelerator mass spectroscopy can be used to carbon date bones, wood, fabrics or anything of biological origin, pinpointing its age of up to 50,000 years ago," said Iacopo Galli, a member of the research team.

"Using our new technique, we can do something similar but with a lower cost and with a faster delivery time for the results." The researchers report that their SCAR instrument can detect radiocarbon dioxide concentration with a precision of 0.4 percent, which approaches the 0.2 percent precision of the best accelerator mass spectrometers.

Geologists do not use carbon-based radiometric dating to determine the age of rocks.

Carbon dating only works for objects that are younger than about 50,000 years, and most rocks of interest are older than that.

SCAR offers significant time and cost savings compared to the standard approach for carbon dating and could be useful for a host of other applications such as measuring emissions from fossil fuels or certifying the amount of biogenic content in biofuels.

Faster, cheaper carbon dating Current carbon dating processes require researchers to send a sample to a large facility with an accelerator mass spectrometer and then wait several weeks to get results back.Even if the absorption is small for a single pass, thousands of passes provide enough absorption to detect even trace amounts of radiocarbon. "Although the instrument is relatively simple, the performance obtained by our system is a result of many years of studying of the physics of the various optical components," Giusfredi said. "SCAR instruments could be installed at local facilities across a region to take measurements in different places at the same time, to determine the most important pollution sites," said Davide Mazzotti, a member of the research team.An initiative supporting carbon pricing was recently announced in December 2015 at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, suggesting the demand for accurate local pollution-tracking technology could increase in the future.There, a light beam emitted from a quantum cascade laser at 4.5 microns - an ideal wavelength for sensitive gas detection - interacts with the carbon dioxide inside a 1-meter-long optical cavity with highly reflective mirrors on each end.

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