The Reston Groundwater Dating Laboratory
3H/3He Noble Gas FAQ
- Where is tritium/helium-3 dating best suited?
See 3H/3He Dating Background.
- Can I get tritium run at another lab and just use the contract to determine the helium, neon and d3He?
Yes. But this is not recommended. But to do so, just return
copper tubes (schedule 1033) without requesting tritium
by ingrowth (labcode 2112), via your sample submission form.
Make a special point of indicating that only schedule 1033
is requested. The contract lab will report analytical results
for helium, neon, and d3He. They will not interpret
a 3H/3He age, even if you provide
the tritium analysis. You will be responsible for calculating
the 3H/3He age from the analytical
- Can I have tritium analyzed by helium ingrowth without running the helium, neon and d3He?
Yes. Just submit water samples in bottles requesting labcode
- What size of socket do I need to use with my rachet turn the bolts on the copper tubes?
The channels come with nuts that are 13mm, ½ inch to 9/16
inch, depending on which style of channel you are sent from
the contract lab. The 13mm and ½ inch nuts need deep sockets.
The 9/16 inch does not need a deep socket.
- Where do I get the back-pressure valve?
See 3H3He Sampling.
- Should I sample for 3H/3He or noble gases if there are bubbles in the water?
No. The method is very sensitive to gas bubbles; results
will be invalid. In fact, if there are any bubbles in the
sample, even though you did not detect them during sampling,
it is often very clear from the analyses that helium was
stripped from the sample, invalidating any possible interpretation
of 3H/3He age.
- What pumps are best for 3H/3He noble gas sampling?
Pumps that apply a positive pressure on the water. Use
of peristaltic pumps is not recommended because of potential
of gas-bubble formation. Best results have been obtained
with Bennett and Grundfos pumps.
- Do I have to use copper tubing like we do with CFCs?
No. Any tubing (plastic, rubber, metal) is fine. However,
clear plastic is recommended so that if bubbles are present,
they can be seen.
- Is the 3H/3He
age very sensitive to uncertainty in recharge temperature
or recharge elevation?
The solubility of helium and neon in water is not very sensitive
to normal temperature variations. Often the water temperature
can be used as recharge temperature in the 3H/3He
age calculation. Recharge elevation is more important.
- How long
does it take to get my results back from the lab?
Delivery can be expected within 6 months (plus helium-3
ingrowth time) of receipt of the samples at the contract
lab. The helium-3 ingrowth time is normally 1-2 months.
Thus, normal delivery is then approximately 7-8 months,
however, laboratory equipment failure can increase the delivery
time by several months.
- Can I pre-pay for analyses?
- Are the results put into NWIS for me?
- Who can I contact to ask about the status of my samples?
- What does it mean when the contract lab reports that the sample was fractionated?
First of all, the age, even though often calculated, is
likely invalid. The term "fractionated" indicates that
the sample has in some way degassed. This can happen if
bubbles form during sampling. It can also happen naturally
if gas bubbles form in the aquifer such as during denitrification
or methanogenesis near the water table. One indication
of fractionation is that Δ4He
is smaller than ΔNe. The terms
Δ4He and ΔNe are reported in
the analysis and indicate the amount of helium and neon
in the sample in excess of that in solubility equilibrium
- What are some
of the sample problems that can cause me not to get a valid
There are many: (1) Ends of the copper tubes are scratched
or bent preventing proper vacuum seal in the extraction
lab, (2) Copper tube was not completely sealed and leaks,
(3) There is too much gas in the sample, such as excess
air, air leaks, or large excess terrigenic helium, (4) Sample
is fractionated in some way, such as through gas stripping,
(5) Sample has low tritium (<0.5TU).
- How can I screen my samples for large terrigenic excess helium?
- What is the
difference between the corrected and uncorrected age?
The "uncorrected age" assumes that all the tritiogenic helium-3
in the sample is derived from tritium decay and from air.
The "corrected age" accounts for the additional presence
of terrigenic helium in the sample. Normally it is assumed
that the 3He/4He ratio of the terrigenic
helium is 2x10-8 (if of radiogenic origin).
The "corrected age" should be used only if the presence
of terrigenic helium is indicated in the analytical report.
If the percent of terrigenic helium in the sample is low,
the "uncorrected age" and "corrected age" will be nearly
- What does a negative age mean?
This can indicate some analytical and/or sampling problem.
Loss of helium-3 due to inadequate confinement of the water
sample following recharge can lead to anomalously young
ages. Fractionated samples can have negative ages. Small
negative ages are usually interpreted as approximately modern.