Isotopes of carbon

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Main isotopes of carbon
Iso­tope Decay
abund half-life mode energy (MeV) prod
11C syn 20 min β+ 0.96 11B
12C 98.9% is stable with 6 neutrons
13C 1.1% is stable with 7 neutrons
14C trace 5730 y β 0.156 14N
Standard atomic weight (Ar)
  • [12.0096, 12.0116][1]
  • Conventional: 12.011

Carbon (6C) has 15 known isotopes, from 8C to 22C, of which 12C and 13C are stable. The longest-lived radioisotope is 14C, with a half-life of 5,700 years. This is also the only carbon radioisotope found in nature—trace quantities are formed cosmogenically by the reaction 14N + 1n → 14C + 1H. The most stable artificial radioisotope is 11C, which has a half-life of 20.334 minutes. All other radioisotopes have half-lives under 20 seconds, most less than 200 milliseconds. The least stable isotope is 8C, with a half-life of 2.0 x 10−21 s.


Carbon-11 or 11C is a radioactive isotope of carbon that decays to boron-11. This decay mainly occurs due to positron emission; however, around 0.19–0.23% of the time, it is a result of electron capture.[2][3] It has a half-life of 20.334 minutes.

+ 0.96 MeV
+ Electron neutrino + 1.98 MeV

It is produced from nitrogen in a cyclotron by the reaction

+ 4

Carbon-11 is commonly used as a radioisotope for the radioactive labeling of molecules in positron emission tomography. Among the many molecules used in this context is the radioligand [11

Natural isotopes[edit]

There are three naturally occurring isotopes of carbon: 12, 13, and 14. 12C and 13C are stable, occurring in a natural proportion of approximately 99:1. 14C is produced by thermal neutrons from cosmic radiation in the upper atmosphere, and is transported down to earth to be absorbed by living biological material. Isotopically, 14C constitutes a negligible part; but, since it is radioactive with a half-life of 5,700 years, it is radiometrically detectable. Since dead tissue doesn't absorb 14C, the amount of 14C is one of the methods used within the field of archeology for radiometric dating of biological material.


12C and 13C are measured as the isotope ratio δ13C in benthic foraminifera and used as a proxy for nutrient cycling and the temperature dependent air-sea exchange of CO2 (ventilation) (Lynch-Stieglitz et al., 1995). Plants find it easier to use the lighter isotopes (12C) when they convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into food. So, for example, large blooms of plankton (free-floating organisms) absorb large amounts of 12C from the oceans. Originally, the 12C was mostly incorporated into the seawater from the atmosphere. If the oceans that the plankton live in are stratified (meaning that there are layers of warm water near the top, and colder water deeper down), then the surface water does not mix very much with the deeper waters, so that when the plankton dies, it sinks and takes away 12C from the surface, leaving the surface layers relatively rich in 13C. Where cold waters well up from the depths (such as in the North Atlantic), the water carries 12C back up with it. So, when the ocean was less stratified than today, there was much more 12C in the skeletons of surface-dwelling species. Other indicators of past climate include the presence of tropical species, coral growths rings, etc.[4]

Tracing food sources and diets[edit]

The quantities of the different isotopes can be measured by mass spectrometry and compared to a standard; the result (e.g. the delta of the 13C = δ13C) is expressed as parts per thousand (‰).

Stable carbon isotopes in carbon dioxide are utilized differentially by plants during photosynthesis.[citation needed] Grasses in temperate climates (barley, rice, wheat, rye and oats, plus sunflower, potato, tomatoes, peanuts, cotton, sugar beet, and most trees and their nuts/fruits, roses and Kentucky bluegrass) follow a C3 photosynthetic pathway that will yield δ13C values averaging about −26.5‰.[citation needed] Grasses in hot arid climates (maize in particular, but also millet, sorghum, sugar cane and crabgrass) follow a C4 photosynthetic pathway that produces δ13C values averaging about −12.5‰.[citation needed]

It follows that eating these different plants will affect the δ13C values in the consumer's body tissues. If an animal (or human) eats only C3 plants, their δ13C values will be from −18.5 to −22.0‰ in their bone collagen and −14.5‰ in the hydroxylapatite of their teeth and bones.[5]

In contrast, C4 feeders will have bone collagen with a value of −7.5‰ and hydroxylapatite value of −0.5‰.

In actual case studies, millet and maize eaters can easily be distinguished from rice and wheat eaters. Studying how these dietary preferences are distributed geographically through time can illuminate migration paths of people and dispersal paths of different agricultural crops. However, human groups have often mixed C3 and C4 plants (northern Chinese historically subsisted on wheat and millet), or mixed plant and animal groups together (for example, southeastern Chinese subsisting on rice and fish).[6]

List of isotopes[edit]

Z(p) N(n)  
isotopic mass (u)
half-life decay mode(s)[7] daughter
isotope(s)[n 1]
(mole fraction)
range of natural
(mole fraction)
8C 6 2 8.037675(25) 2.0(4) × 10−21 s
[230(50) keV]
2p 6
[n 2]
9C 6 3 9.0310367(23) 126.5(9) ms β+ (60%) 9
[n 3]
β+, p (23%) 8
[n 4]
β+, α (17%) 5
[n 5]
10C 6 4 10.0168532(4) 19.290(12) s β+ 10
11C[n 6] 6 5 11.0114336(10) 20.334(24) min β+ (99.79%) 11
EC (.21%)[2][3] 11
12C 6 6 12 exactly[n 7] Stable 0+ 0.9893(8) 0.98853–0.99037
13C[n 8] 6 7 13.0033548378(10) Stable 1/2− 0.0107(8) 0.00963–0.01147
14C[n 9] 6 8 14.003241989(4) 5,730 years β 14
0+ Trace[n 10] <10−12
15C 6 9 15.0105993(9) 2.449(5) s β 15
16C 6 10 16.014701(4) 0.747(8) s β, n (97.9%) 15
β (2.1%) 16
17C 6 11 17.022586(19) 193(5) ms β (71.59%) 17
β, n (28.41%) 16
18C 6 12 18.02676(3) 92(2) ms β (68.5%) 18
β, n (31.5%) 17
19C[n 11] 6 13 19.03481(11) 46.2(23) ms β, n (47.0%) 18
β (46.0%) 19
β, 2n (7%) 17
20C 6 14 20.04032(26) 16(3) ms
[14(+6-5) ms]
β, n (72.0%) 19
β (28.0%) 20
21C 6 15 21.04934(54)# <30 ns n 20
22C[n 12] 6 16 22.05720(97)# 6.2(13) ms
[6.1(+14-12) ms]
β 22
  1. ^ Bold for stable isotopes
  2. ^ Subsequently decays by double proton emission to 4He for a net reaction of 8C → 4He + 41H
  3. ^ Immediately decays by proton emission to 8Be, which immediately decays to two 4He atoms for a net reaction of 9C → 24He + 1H + e+
  4. ^ Immediately decays into two 4He atoms for a net reaction of 9C → 24He + 1H + e+
  5. ^ Immediately decays by proton emission to 4He for a net reaction of 9C → 24He + 1H + e+
  6. ^ Used for labeling molecules in PET scans
  7. ^ The unified atomic mass unit is defined as 1/12 the mass of an unbound atom of carbon-12 at ground state
  8. ^ Ratio of 12C to 13C used to measure biological productivity in ancient times and differing types of photosynthesis
  9. ^ Has an important use in radiodating (see carbon dating)
  10. ^ Primarily cosmogenic, produced by neutrons striking atoms of 14N (14N + 1n → 14C + 1H)
  11. ^ Has 1 halo neutron
  12. ^ Has 2 halo neutrons


  • The precision of the isotope abundances and atomic mass is limited through variations. The given ranges should be applicable to any normal terrestrial material.
  • Values marked # are not purely derived from experimental data, but at least partly from systematic trends. Spins with weak assignment arguments are enclosed in parentheses.
  • Uncertainties are given in concise form in parentheses after the corresponding last digits. Uncertainty values denote one standard deviation, except isotopic composition and standard atomic mass from IUPAC, which use expanded uncertainties.
  • Carbon-12 nuclide is of particular importance as it is used as the standard from which atomic masses of all nuclides are expressed: its atomic mass is by definition 12 Da.
  • Nuclide masses are given by IUPAP Commission on Symbols, Units, Nomenclature, Atomic Masses and Fundamental Constants (SUNAMCO).
  • Isotope abundances are given by IUPAC Commission on Isotopic Abundances and Atomic Weights (CIAAW).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Meija, J.; et al. (2016). "Atomic weights of the elements 2013 (IUPAC Technical Report)". Pure Appl. Chem. 88 (3): 265–91. doi:10.1515/pac-2015-0305. 
  2. ^ a b Scobie, J.; Lewis, G. M. (1 September 1957). "K-capture in carbon 11". Philosophical Magazine. 2 (21): 1089–1099. Bibcode:1957PMag....2.1089S. doi:10.1080/14786435708242737. Retrieved 27 March 2012. 
  3. ^ a b Campbell, J. L.; Leiper, W.; Ledingham, K. W. D.; Drever, R. W. P. "The ratio of K-capture to positron emission in the decay of 11C". Nuclear Physics A. 96 (2): 279–287. Bibcode:1967NuPhA..96..279C. doi:10.1016/0375-9474(67)90712-9. Retrieved 27 March 2012. 
  4. ^ Tim Flannery The weather makers: the history & future of climate change, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, Australia. ISBN 1-920885-84-6
  5. ^ Tycot, R. H. (2004). M. Martini; M. Milazzo; M. Piacentini, eds. "Stable isotopes and diet: you are what you eat" (PDF). Proceedings of the International School of Physics 'Enrico Fermi' Course CLIV,. Amsterdam: Societa Italiana di Fisica. 
  6. ^ Hedges Richard (2006). "Where does our protein come from?". British Journal of Nutrition. 95: 1031–2. doi:10.1079/bjn20061782. 
  7. ^ "Universal Nuclide Chart". nucleonica. (Registration required (help)). 

Isotopes of boron Isotopes of carbon Isotopes of nitrogen
Table of nuclides