Radiometric age dating rocks

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Before an age can be calculated from the proportions of 39 Ar and 40 Ar present it is necessary to find out the proportion of 39 K that has been converted to 39 Ar by the neutron bombardment.

This can be achieved by bombarding a sample of known age (a 'standard') along with the samples to be measured and comparing the results of the isotope analysis.

To calculate the age of a rock it is necessary to know the half-life of the radioactive decay series, the amount of the parent and daughter isotopes present in the rock when it formed, and the present proportions of these isotopes.

It must also be assumed that all the daughter isotope measured in the rock today formed as a result of decay of the parent.

The radiometric decay series commonly used in radiometric dating of rocks are detailed in the following sections.

The choice of method of determination of the age of the rock is governed by its age and the abundance of the appropriate elements in minerals.

Argon is an inert rare gas and the isotopes of very small quantities of argon can be measured by a mass spectrometer by driving the gas out of the minerals.

K–Ar dating has therefore been widely used in dating rocks but there is a significant problem with the method, which is that the daughter isotope can escape from the rock by diffusion because it is a gas.

The half-life of this decay is 11.93 billion years.

Radiometric dating uses the decay of isotopes of elements present in minerals as a measure of the age of the rock: to do this, the rate of decay must be known, the proportion of different isotopes present when the mineral formed has to be assumed, and the proportions of different isotopes present today must be measured.

This dating method is principally used for determining the age of formation of igneous rocks, including volcanic units that occur within sedimentary strata.

The samples of rock collected for radiometric dating are generally quite large (several kilograms) to eliminate inhomogeneities in the rock.

The samples are crushed to sand and granule size, thoroughly mixed to homogenise the material and a smaller subsample selected.

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