# Isotopic dating of rocks

For geologic dating, where the time span is on the order of the age of the earth and the methods use the clocks in the rocks, there are two main uncertainties in. Using relative and radiometric dating methods, geologists are able to answer the question: how old is this fossil?. Isotopic dating of rocks, or the minerals in them, is based on the fact that we know the decay rates of certain unstable isotopes of elements and that these rates.

The results show that there is no known process that can alter the rate of radioactive decay. By way of explanation it can be noted that since the cause of the process lies deep within the atomic nucleus, external forces such as extreme heat and pressure have no effect.

The same is true regarding gravitational, magneticand electric fieldsas well as the chemical state in which the atom resides. In short, the process of radioactive decay is immutable under all known conditions.

Although it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will change, given a sufficient number of atoms, the rate of their decay is found to be constant. The situation is analogous to the death rate among human populations insured by an insurance company.

Even though it is impossible to predict when a given policyholder will die, the company can count on paying off a certain number of beneficiaries every month. The recognition that the rate of decay of any radioactive parent atom is proportional to the number of atoms N of the parent remaining at any time gives rise to the following expression: Converting this proportion to an equation incorporates the additional observation that different radioisotopes have different disintegration rates even when the same number of atoms are observed undergoing decay.

Two alterations are generally made to equation 4 in order to obtain the form most useful for radiometric dating. In the first place, since the unknown term in radiometric dating is obviously t, it is desirable to rearrange equation 4 so that it is explicitly solved for t.

Half-life is defined as the time period that must elapse in order to halve the initial number of radioactive atoms.

The half-life and the decay constant are inversely proportional because rapidly decaying radioisotopes have a high decay constant but a short half-life.

With t made explicit and half-life introduced, equation 4 is converted to the following form, in which the symbols have the same meaning: Alternatively, because the number of daughter atoms is directly observed rather than N, which is the initial number of parent atoms present, another formulation may be more convenient. Since the initial number of parent atoms present at time zero N0 must be the sum of the parent atoms remaining N and the daughter atoms present D, one can write: Substituting this in equation 6 gives If one chooses to use P to designate the parent atom, the expression assumes its familiar form: This follows because, as each parent atom loses its identity with time, it reappears as a daughter atom.

Equation 8 documents the simplicity of direct isotopic dating.

The time of decay is proportional to the natural logarithm represented by ln of the ratio of D to P. In short, one need only measure the ratio of the number of radioactive parent and daughter atoms present, and the time elapsed since the mineral or rock formed can be calculated, provided of course that the decay rate is known. Likewise, the conditions that must be met to make the calculated age precise and meaningful are in themselves simple: The rock or mineral must have remained closed to the addition or escape of parent and daughter atoms since the time that the rock or mineral system formed.

It must be possible to correct for other atoms identical to daughter atoms already present when the rock or mineral formed. The decay constant must be known.

The measurement of the daughter-to-parent ratio must be accurate because uncertainty in this ratio contributes directly to uncertainty in the age. Different schemes have been developed to deal with the critical assumptions stated above. In uranium-lead datingminerals virtually free of initial lead can be isolated and corrections made for the trivial amounts present.

In whole-rock isochron methods that make use of the rubidium- strontium or samarium - neodymium decay schemes, a series of rocks or minerals are chosen that can be assumed to have the same age and identical abundances of their initial isotopic ratios. The results are then tested for the internal consistency that can validate the assumptions. In all cases, it is the obligation of the investigator making the determinations to include enough tests to indicate that the absolute age quoted is valid within the limits stated.

In other words, it is the obligation of geochronologists to try to prove themselves wrong by including a series of cross-checks in their measurements before they publish a result.

Such checks include dating a series of ancient units with closely spaced but known relative ages and replicate analysis of different parts of the same rock body with samples collected at widely spaced localities.

The importance of internal checks as well as interlaboratory comparisons becomes all the more apparent when one realizes that geochronology laboratories are limited in number. Because of the expensive equipment necessary and the combination of geologic, chemical, and laboratory skills required, geochronology is usually carried out by teams of experts. Most geologists must rely on geochronologists for their results.

Accuracy of radiometric dating[ edit ] Thermal ionization mass spectrometer used in radiometric dating. The basic equation of radiometric dating requires that neither the parent nuclide nor the daughter product can enter or leave the material after its formation. The possible confounding effects of contamination of parent and daughter isotopes have to be considered, as do the effects of any loss or gain of such isotopes since the sample was created.

It is therefore essential to have as much information as possible about the material being dated and to check for possible signs of alteration. Alternatively, if several different minerals can be dated from the same sample and are assumed to be formed by the same event and were in equilibrium with the reservoir when they formed, they should form an isochron. This can reduce the problem of contamination. In uranium—lead datingthe concordia diagram is used which also decreases the problem of nuclide loss.

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. The procedures used to isolate and analyze the parent and daughter nuclides must be precise and accurate.

This normally involves isotope-ratio mass spectrometry. 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. Closure temperature If a material that selectively rejects the daughter nuclide is heated, any daughter nuclides that have been accumulated over time will be lost through diffusionsetting 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. The age is calculated from the slope of the isochron line and the original composition from the intercept of the isochron with the y-axis. The equation is most conveniently expressed in terms of the measured quantity N t rather than the constant initial value No.

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. Modern dating methods[ edit ] 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 dating method[ edit ] Main article: Uranium—lead dating A concordia diagram as used in uranium—lead datingwith data from the Pfunze BeltZimbabwe.

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.

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.

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.