Radioactive dating is a method of dating rocks and minerals using radioactive isotopes. This method is useful for igneous and metamorphic rocks, which cannot be dated by the stratigraphic correlation method used for sedimentary rocks.
Over naturally-occurring isotopes are known. Some do not change with time and form stable isotopes i. The unstable or more commonly known radioactive isotopes break down by radioactive decay into other isotopes. Radioactive decay is a natural process and comes from the atomic nucleus becoming unstable and releasing bits and pieces. These are released as radioactive particles there are many types. This decay process le to a more balanced nucleus and when the of protons and neutrons balance, the atom becomes stable.
This radioactivity can be used for dating, since a radioactive 'parent' element decays into a stable 'daughter' element at a constant rate. For geological purposes, this is taken as one year.
Another way of expressing this is the half-life period given the symbol T. The half-life is the time it takes for half of the parent atoms to decay. Many different radioactive isotopes and techniques are used for dating.
All rely on the fact that certain elements particularly uranium and potassium contain a of different isotopes whose half-life is exactly known and therefore the relative concentrations of these isotopes within a rock or mineral can measure the age. For an element to be useful for geochronology measuring geological timethe isotope must be reasonably abundant and produce daughter isotopes at a good rate.
Either a whole rock or a single mineral grain can be dated. Some techniques place the sample in a nuclear reactor first to excite the isotopes present, then measure these isotopes using a mass spectrometer such as in the argon-argon scheme.
Others place mineral grains under a special microscope, firing a laser beam at the grains which ionises the mineral and releases the isotopes. The isotopes are then measured within the same machine by an attached mass spectrometer an example of this is SIMS analysis. Get our monthly s for amazing animals, research insights and museum events.
This is a common dating method mainly used by archaeologists, as it can only date geologically recent organic materials, usually charcoal, but also bone and antlers. All living organisms take up carbon from their environment including a small proportion of the radioactive isotope 14C formed from nitrogen as a result of cosmic ray bombardment.
The amount of carbon isotopes within living organisms reaches an equilibrium value, on death no more is taken up, and the 14C present starts to decay at a known rate. The amount of 14C present and the known rate of decay of 14C and the equilibrium value gives the length of time elapsed since the death of the organism.
This method faces problems because the cosmic ray flux has changed over time, but a calibration factor is applied to take this into. Radiocarbon dating is normally suitable for organic materials less than 50 years old because beyond that time the amount of 14C becomes too small to be accurately measured.
This scheme was developed in but became more useful when mass spectrometers were improved in the late s and early s.
However, both Rb and Sr easily follow fluids that move through rocks or escape during some types of metamorphism. This technique is less used now. The dual decay of potassium K to 40Ar argon and 40Ca calcium was worked out between and This technique has become more widely used since the late s.
Its great advantage is that most rocks contain potassium, usually locked up in feldspars, clays and amphiboles. However, potassium is very mobile during metamorphism and alteration, and so this technique is not used much for old rocks, but is useful for rocks of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras, particularly unaltered igneous rocks.
Argon-Argon dating 39ArAr. This technique developed in the late s but came into vogue in the early s, through step-wise release of the isotopes. This technique uses the same minerals and rocks as for K-Ar dating but restricts measurements to the argon isotopic system which is not so affected by metamorphic and alteration events. It is used for very old to very young rocks. The decay of Sm to Nd for dating rocks began in the mids and was widespread by the early s.
It is useful for dating very old igneous and metamorphic rocks and also meteorites and other cosmic fragments. However, there is a limited range in Sm-Nd isotopes in many igneous rocks, although metamorphic rocks that contain the mineral garnet are useful as this mineral has a large range in Sm-Nd isotopes.
This technique also helps in determining the composition and evolution of the Earth's mantle and bodies in the universe. The Re-Os isotopic system was first developed in the early s, but recently has been improved for accurate age determinations. The main limitation is that it only works on certain igneous rocks as most rocks have insufficient Re and Os or lack evolution of the isotopes. This technique is good for iron meteorites and the mineral molybdenite. This system is highly favoured for accurate dating of igneous and metamorphic rocks, through many different techniques.
It was used by the beginning of the s, but took until the early s to produce accurate ages of rocks. The great advantage is that almost all igneous and metamorphic rocks contain sufficient U and Pb for this dating. It can be used on powdered whole rocks, mineral concentrates isotope dilution technique or single grains SHRIMP technique.
It has revolutionised age dating using the U-Pb isotopic system. Using the SHRIMP, selected areas of growth on single grains of zircon, baddeleyite, sphene, rutile and monazite can be accurately dated to less than years in some cases. It can even date nonradioactive minerals when they contain inclusions of zircons and monazite, as in sapphire grains.
It can help fix the maximum age of sedimentary rocks when they contain enough accessory zircon grains usually need about grains. Because of advancements in geochronology for over 50 years, accurate formation ages are now known for many rock sequences on Earth and even in space. The oldest accurately dated rocks on Earth are metamorphosed felsic volcanic rocks from north-west Western Australia.
Radiometric age dating
These were dated at about 4. Several minerals incorporate tiny amounts of uranium into their structure when they crystallise. The radioactive decay from the uranium releases energy and particles this strips away electrons leading to disorder in the mineral structure. The travel of these particles through the mineral leaves scars of damage about one thousandth of a millimetre in length. These 'fission tracks' are formed by the spontaneous fission of U and are only preserved within insulating materials where the free movement of electrons is restricted.
Because the radioactive decay occurs at a known rate, the density of fission tracks for the amount of uranium within a mineral grain can be used to determine its age.
To see the fission tracks, the mineral surface is polished, etched with acids, and examined with an electron microscope. An effective way to measure the uranium concentration is to irradiate the sample in a nuclear reactor and produce comparative artificial tracks by the induced fission of U. Fission track dating is commonly used on apatite, zircon and monazite.
It helps to determine the rates of uplift for geomorphology studiessubsidence rates for petroleum exploration and sedimentary basin studiesand the age of volcanic eruptions this is because fission tracks reset after the eruption. However, care is needed as some samples have fission tracks reset during bushfires, giving far too young ages. Fission track dating is mostly used on Cretaceous and Cenozoic rocks. The Australian Museum respects and acknowledges the Gadigal people as the First Peoples and Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways on which the Museum stands.
How is this radioactivity measured? What dating methods are there? Shaping the Earth Discover more about what makes the Earth unique.
Plate Tectonics Since the s, several discoveries have led to a new understanding of how the Earth works. What is radioactive dating? Close Modal Dialog. Stay in the know Get our monthly s for amazing animals, research insights and museum events. up today. Radiocarbon 14C dating This is a common dating method mainly used by archaeologists, as it can only date geologically recent organic materials, usually charcoal, but also bone and antlers.
Rubidium-Strontium dating Rb-Sr This scheme was developed in but became more useful when mass spectrometers were improved in the late s and early s.
Argon-Argon dating 39ArAr This technique developed in the late s but came into vogue in the early s, through step-wise release of the isotopes. Samarium-Neodymium Sm-Nd The decay of Sm to Nd for dating rocks began in the mids and was widespread by the early s. Rhenium-Osmium Re-Os system The Re-Os isotopic system was first developed in the early s, but recently has been improved for accurate age determinations.
Uranium-Lead U-Pb system This system is highly favoured for accurate dating of igneous and metamorphic rocks, through many different techniques. Fission track dating Several minerals incorporate tiny amounts of uranium into their structure when they crystallise. Terms The atomic of an element is given by the of protons present within the element's nucleus, and this helps determine the chemical properties of that element.
The atomic mass of an element combines the of protons and neutrons within its nucleus.