Radioactive element dating

The particles given off during the decay process are part of a profound fundamental change in the nucleus. To compensate for the loss of mass and energy , the radioactive atom undergoes internal transformation and in most cases simply becomes an atom of a different chemical element.

In terms of the numbers of atoms present, it is as if apples changed spontaneously into oranges at a fixed and known rate. In this analogy , the apples would represent radioactive, or parent, atoms, while the oranges would represent the atoms formed, the so-called daughters. Pursuing this analogy further, one would expect that a new basket of apples would have no oranges but that an older one would have many. In fact, one would expect that the ratio of oranges to apples would change in a very specific way over the time elapsed, since the process continues until all the apples are converted.

In geochronology the situation is identical. A particular rock or mineral that contains a radioactive isotope or radioisotope is analyzed to determine the number of parent and daughter isotopes present, whereby the time since that mineral or rock formed is calculated. Of course, one must select geologic materials that contain elements with long half-lives —i.

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The age calculated is only as good as the existing knowledge of the decay rate and is valid only if this rate is constant over the time that elapsed. Fortunately for geochronology, the study of radioactivity has been the subject of extensive theoretical and laboratory investigation by physicists for almost a century.

FAQ - Radioactive Age-Dating

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, magnetic , and electric fields , as 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. Solution of this equation by techniques of the calculus yields one form of the fundamental equation for radiometric age determination,. 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 N 0 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 pair of equations states rigorously what might be assumed from intuition , that minerals formed at successively longer times in the past would have progressively higher daughter-to-parent ratios. 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:.

Principles of isotopic dating

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 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 dating , minerals 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.

Dating - Principles of isotopic dating | xycajahegopi.cf

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. In turn, the geochronologist relies on the geologist for relative ages. In order for a radioactive parent-daughter pair to be useful for dating, many criteria must be met. This section examines these criteria and explores the ways in which the reliability of the ages measured can be assessed. Because geologic materials are diverse in their origin and chemical content and datable elements are unequally distributed, each method has its strengths and weaknesses.

Of these, only the radioisotopes with extremely long half-lives remain. It should be mentioned in passing that some of the radioisotopes present early in the history of the solar system and now completely extinct have been recorded in meteorites in the form of the elevated abundances of their daughter isotopes. Analysis of such meteorites makes it possible to estimate the time that elapsed between element creation and meteorite formation. Natural elements that are still radioactive today produce daughter products at a very slow rate; hence, it is easy to date very old minerals but difficult to obtain the age of those formed in the recent geologic past.

This follows from the fact that the amount of daughter isotopes present is so small that it is difficult to measure. The difficulty can be overcome to some degree by achieving lower background contamination, by improving instrument sensitivity, and by finding minerals with abundant parent isotopes. Geologic events of the not-too-distant past are more easily dated by using recently formed radioisotopes with short half-lives that produce more daughter products per unit time. Two sources of such isotopes exist.

Half-life and carbon dating - Nuclear chemistry - Chemistry - Khan Academy

In one case, intermediate isotopes in the uranium or thorium decay chain can become isolated in certain minerals because of differences in chemical properties and, once fixed, can decay to new isotopes, providing a measure of the time elapsed since they were isolated. Based on our study of meteorites and rocks from the Moon, as well as modeling the formation of planets, it is believed pretty much well-established that all of the objects in the Solar System formed very quickly about 4. When we age date a planet, we are actually just dating the age of the surface, not the whole planet.

We can get absolute ages only if we have rocks from that surface. For others, all we are doing is getting a relative age, using things like the formation of craters and other features on a surface.


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By studying other planets, we are learning more about our own planet. The effects of impacts and how they might affect us here on Earth, global climate change Venus vs. Earth and what could happen to Earth in an extreme case, etc. From Wikipedia, radioactive decay is the process in which an unstable atomic nucleus spontaneously loses energy by emitting ionizing particles and radiation. This decay, or loss of energy, results in an atom element of one type, called the parent nuclide transforming to an atom of a different type another element or another isotope of the same element , named the daughter nuclide.

It is impossible to predict when a given atom will decay, but given a large number of similar atoms, the decay rate on average is predictable. This predictable decay is called the half-life of the parent atom, the time it takes for one half of all of the parent atoms to transform into the daughter. This may simply have to do with what the media is talking about. When there is a scientific discussion about the age of, say a meteorite or the Earth, the media just talks about the large numbers and not about the dating technique e.

On the other hand, when the media talk about "more recent events," ages that are more comprehendible, such as when early Man built a fire or even how old a painting is or some ancient parchment , then we bring up the dating technique in order to better validate the findings. Carbon is unreactive with a number of common lab substances: It does burn in oxygen, and if you can pass the combusted gas through limewater, the carbon dioxide will turn the limewater milky by producing calcium carbonate. While not a chemical test, the presence of carbon in a sample like a meteorite can be found by vaporizing the sample and passing it through a mass spectrometer.

This is also a way to get at the abundance of the various isotopes of carbon. So, you can use the radioactive elements to measure the age of rocks and minerals. Below is a list of some common elements. For example, Potassium decays to Argon You can use this to measure the age of a rock from about million years to more than 10 billion years the Solar System is 4. So, Carbon can only measure things up to just over 50, years old, great for determining when someone built a wood fire, but not good for determining the age of a meteorite.

Radioactive decay is a well-known process. It occurs whenever an atom has an unbalanced number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus. The number of protons usually determines the element the atom belongs to and it is fixed for any particular element.


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  • On the other hand, the number of neutrons that can be contained in the nucleus can vary. When the number of neutrons is in balance with the number of protons which does not necessarily means that the number of neutrons has to be exactly the same as the number of protons then the atoms of a particular element is said to be stable.