The 14C formed is rapidly oxidised to 14CO2 and enters the earth's plant and animal lifeways through photosynthesis and the food chain.
The rapidity of the dispersal of C14 into the atmosphere has been demonstrated by measurements of radioactive carbon produced from thermonuclear bomb testing.
Libby and his team intially tested the radiocarbon method on samples from prehistoric Egypt.
They chose samples whose age could be independently determined.
The half-life () is the name given to this value which Libby measured at 556830 years. After 10 half-lives, there is a very small amount of radioactive carbon present in a sample.
At about 50 - 60 000 years, then, the limit of the technique is reached (beyond this time, other radiometric techniques must be used for dating).
They exist in equilibrium with the C14 concentration of the atmosphere, that is, the numbers of C14 atoms and non-radioactive carbon atoms stays approximately the same over time.
The reaction is: (Where n is a neutron and p is a proton).
The C14 technique has been and continues to be applied and used in many, many different fields including hydrology, atmospheric science, oceanography, geology, palaeoclimatology, archaeology and biomedicine.
There are three principal isotopes of carbon which occur naturally - C12, C13 (both stable) and C14 (unstable or radioactive).
These isotopes are present in the following amounts C12 - 98.89%, C13 - 1.11% and C14 - 0.00000000010%.
Thus, one carbon 14 atom exists in nature for every 1,000,000,000,000 C12 atoms in living material.