What are radiometric dating techniques

It is commonly used in earth science to determine the age of rock formations or features or to figure out how fast geologic processes take place for example, how fast marine terraces on Santa Cruz island are being uplifted. Radiometric dating relies on the principle of radioactive decay. All radioactive isotopes have a characteristic half-life the amount of time that it takes for one half of the original number of atoms of that isotope to decay.

By measuring the parent isotope radioactive and the daughter isotope radiogenic in a system for example, a rock , we can tell how long the system has been closed in our example, when the rock formed. The process of radiogenic dating is usually done using some sort of mass spectrometer. A mass spectrometer is an instrument that separates atoms based on their mass.

Because geochronologists want to measure isotopes with different masses, a mass spectrometer works really well for dating things. I do think that radiometric dating is an accurate way to date the earth, although I am a geochronologist so I have my biases. Most estimates of the age of the earth come from dating meteorites that have fallen to Earth because we think that they formed in our solar nebula very close to the time that the earth formed.

The fact that the age we calculate is reproducible for these different systems is significant. We have also obtained a very similar age by measuring Pb isotopes in materials from earth. I should mention that the decay constants basically a value that indicates how fast a certain radioactive isotope will decay for some of these isotope systems were calculated by assuming that the age of the earth is 4.

The decay constants for most of these systems have been confirmed in other ways, adding strength to our argument for the age of the earth. Radiometric dating depends on the chemistry and ratios of different elements. It works like this:. Take, for example, zircon, which is a mineral; its chemical formula is ZiSiO 4 , so there is one zirconium Zi for one silicon Si for four oxygen O. One of the elements that can stand in chemically for zircon is uranium.

Uranium eventually decays into lead, and lead does not normally occur in zircon, except as the radioactive decay product of uranium. Therefore, by measuring the ratio of lead to uranium in a crystal of zircon, you can tell how much uranium there originally was in the crystal, which, combined with knowing the radioactive half-life of uranium, tells you how old the crystal is.

Obviously, if the substance you are measuring is contaminated, then all you know is the age since contamination, or worse, you don't know anything, because the contamination might be in the opposite direction - suppose, for example, you're looking at radio carbon carbon 14, which is produced in the atmosphere by cosmic rays, and which decays into nitrogen. Since you are exposed to the atmosphere and contain carbon, if you get oils from your skin onto an archeological artifact, then attempting to date it using radio carbon will fail because you are measuring the age of the oils on your skin, not the age of the artifact.

This is why crystals are good for radiometric dating: The oldest crystals on Earth that were formed on Earth are zircon crystals, and are approximately 4. Asteroids in the solar system have been clocked at 4. We assume that the Earth is probably as old as the asteroids, because we believe the solar system to have formed from a collapsing nebula, and that the Earth, being geologically active, has simply destroyed any older zircon crystals that would be its true age, but we can't really be certain.

When they die, they stop exchanging carbon with the biosphere and their carbon 14 content then starts to decrease at a rate determined by the law of radioactive decay.


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  • How Does Carbon Dating Work.

Radiocarbon dating is essentially a method designed to measure residual radioactivity. By knowing how much carbon 14 is left in a sample, the age of the organism when it died can be known. It must be noted though that radiocarbon dating results indicate when the organism was alive but not when a material from that organism was used. There are three principal techniques used to measure carbon 14 content of any given sample— gas proportional counting, liquid scintillation counting, and accelerator mass spectrometry.

Gas proportional counting is a conventional radiometric dating technique that counts the beta particles emitted by a given sample. Beta particles are products of radiocarbon decay. In this method, the carbon sample is first converted to carbon dioxide gas before measurement in gas proportional counters takes place. Liquid scintillation counting is another radiocarbon dating technique that was popular in the s. In this method, the sample is in liquid form and a scintillator is added.

This scintillator produces a flash of light when it interacts with a beta particle. A vial with a sample is passed between two photomultipliers, and only when both devices register the flash of light that a count is made.

Radioactive Dating

Accelerator mass spectrometry AMS is a modern radiocarbon dating method that is considered to be the more efficient way to measure radiocarbon content of a sample. In this method, the carbon 14 content is directly measured relative to the carbon 12 and carbon 13 present. The method does not count beta particles but the number of carbon atoms present in the sample and the proportion of the isotopes.

Not all materials can be radiocarbon dated. Most, if not all, organic compounds can be dated.


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Samples that have been radiocarbon dated since the inception of the method include charcoal , wood , twigs, seeds , bones , shells , leather, peat , lake mud, soil , hair, pottery , pollen , wall paintings, corals, blood residues, fabrics , paper or parchment, resins, and water , among others. Finally, correlation between different isotopic dating methods may be required to confirm the age of a sample.

For example, the age of the Amitsoq gneisses from western Greenland was determined to be 3. Accurate radiometric dating generally requires that the parent has a long enough half-life that it will be present in significant amounts at the time of measurement except as described below under "Dating with short-lived extinct radionuclides" , the half-life of the parent is accurately known, and enough of the daughter product is produced to be accurately measured and distinguished from the initial amount of the daughter present in the material.

The procedures used to isolate and analyze the parent and daughter nuclides must be precise and accurate. This normally involves isotope-ratio mass spectrometry. The precision of a dating method depends in part on the half-life of the radioactive isotope involved. For instance, carbon has a half-life of 5, years. After an organism has been dead for 60, years, so little carbon is left that accurate dating cannot be established.

On the other hand, the concentration of carbon falls off so steeply that the age of relatively young remains can be determined precisely to within a few decades. If a material that selectively rejects the daughter nuclide is heated, any daughter nuclides that have been accumulated over time will be lost through diffusion , setting the isotopic "clock" to zero. The temperature at which this happens is known as the closure temperature or blocking temperature and is specific to a particular material and isotopic system.

These temperatures are experimentally determined in the lab by artificially resetting sample minerals using a high-temperature furnace. As the mineral cools, the crystal structure begins to form and diffusion of isotopes is less easy. At a certain temperature, the crystal structure has formed sufficiently to prevent diffusion of isotopes.

This temperature is what is known as closure temperature and represents the temperature below which the mineral is a closed system to isotopes. Thus an igneous or metamorphic rock or melt, which is slowly cooling, does not begin to exhibit measurable radioactive decay until it cools below the closure temperature. The age that can be calculated by radiometric dating is thus the time at which the rock or mineral cooled to closure temperature.

This field is known as thermochronology or thermochronometry.

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The mathematical expression that relates radioactive decay to geologic time is [12] [15]. The equation is most conveniently expressed in terms of the measured quantity N t rather than the constant initial value N o. The above equation makes use of information on the composition of parent and daughter isotopes at the time the material being tested cooled below its closure temperature.

This is well-established for most isotopic systems. Plotting an isochron is used to solve the age equation graphically and calculate the age of the sample and the original composition. Radiometric dating has been carried out since when it was invented by Ernest Rutherford as a method by which one might determine the age of the Earth. In the century since then the techniques have been greatly improved and expanded. The mass spectrometer was invented in the s and began to be used in radiometric dating in the s. It operates by generating a beam of ionized atoms from the sample under test.

The ions then travel through a magnetic field, which diverts them into different sampling sensors, known as " Faraday cups ", depending on their mass and level of ionization. On impact in the cups, the ions set up a very weak current that can be measured to determine the rate of impacts and the relative concentrations of different atoms in the beams. Uranium—lead radiometric dating involves using uranium or uranium to date a substance's absolute age.

Radiometric Dating: Methods, Uses & the Significance of Half-Life

This scheme has been refined to the point that the error margin in dates of rocks can be as low as less than two million years in two-and-a-half billion years. Uranium—lead dating is often performed on the mineral zircon ZrSiO 4 , though it can be used on other materials, such as baddeleyite , as well as monazite see: Zircon has a very high closure temperature, is resistant to mechanical weathering and is very chemically inert.

Zircon also forms multiple crystal layers during metamorphic events, which each may record an isotopic age of the event. One of its great advantages is that any sample provides two clocks, one based on uranium's decay to lead with a half-life of about million years, and one based on uranium's decay to lead with a half-life of about 4.

This can be seen in the concordia diagram, where the samples plot along an errorchron straight line which intersects the concordia curve at the age of the sample. This involves the alpha decay of Sm to Nd with a half-life of 1. Accuracy levels of within twenty million years in ages of two-and-a-half billion years are achievable. This involves electron capture or positron decay of potassium to argon Potassium has a half-life of 1. This is based on the beta decay of rubidium to strontium , with a half-life of 50 billion years. This scheme is used to date old igneous and metamorphic rocks , and has also been used to date lunar samples.

Radiometric Dating Techniques

Closure temperatures are so high that they are not a concern. Rubidium-strontium dating is not as precise as the uranium-lead method, with errors of 30 to 50 million years for a 3-billion-year-old sample. A relatively short-range dating technique is based on the decay of uranium into thorium, a substance with a half-life of about 80, years. It is accompanied by a sister process, in which uranium decays into protactinium, which has a half-life of 32, years. While uranium is water-soluble, thorium and protactinium are not, and so they are selectively precipitated into ocean-floor sediments , from which their ratios are measured.

The scheme has a range of several hundred thousand years. A related method is ionium—thorium dating , which measures the ratio of ionium thorium to thorium in ocean sediment. Radiocarbon dating is also simply called Carbon dating.

Radiometric dating - Wikipedia

Carbon is a radioactive isotope of carbon, with a half-life of 5, years, [25] [26] which is very short compared with the above isotopes and decays into nitrogen. Carbon, though, is continuously created through collisions of neutrons generated by cosmic rays with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere and thus remains at a near-constant level on Earth. The carbon ends up as a trace component in atmospheric carbon dioxide CO 2.

A carbon-based life form acquires carbon during its lifetime. Plants acquire it through photosynthesis , and animals acquire it from consumption of plants and other animals. When an organism dies, it ceases to take in new carbon, and the existing isotope decays with a characteristic half-life years.