|Themes > Science > Chemistry > Nuclear Chemistry > Nuclear Reactions > Radiometric Dating|
Radiometric techniques were developed after the discovery of radioactivity in 1896. The regular rates of decay for unstable, radioactive elements were found to constitute virtual "clocks" within the earth's rocks.
living organisms absorb radiocarbon, an unstable form of carbon that has a half-life of about 5,730 years. During its lifetime, an organism continually replenishes its supply of radiocarbon by breathing and eating. After the organism dies and becomes a fossil, C-14 continues to decay without being replaced. To measure the amount of radiocarbon left in a fossil, scientists burn a small piece to convert it into carbon dioxide gas. Radiation counters are used to detect the electrons given off by decaying C-14 as it turns into nitrogen. The amount of C-14 is compared to the amount of C-12, the stable form of carbon, to determine how much radiocarbon has decayed and to date the fossil.
Radioactive decay may take different routes. Thus, if the isotope decays by alpha emission, it loses the two protons and two neutrons that make up an alpha particle; the atomic number (number of protons) is reduced by two and the atomic mass (number of nuclear particles, or nucleons) by four. In beta decay, or electron loss, a radioactive nucleus can gain or lose one unit of electric charge without changing the number of nucleons. More radioactive substances are beta-ray emitters than alpha-ray emitters. A third important mode of decay involves electron capture; the nucleus of an atom absorbs an electron, which unites with a proton of the nucleus to form a neutron. Thus, the atomic number is reduced by one, but the mass of the nucleus remains unchanged. The fourth mode of decay, gamma radiation, consists of the emission of waves of electromagnetic energy.
Scientists describe the radioactivity of an element in terms of half-life, the time the element takes to lose 50 percent of its activity by decay. This covers an extraordinary range of time, from billions of years to a few microseconds. At the end of the period constituting one half-life, half of the original quantity of radioactive element has decayed; after another half-life, half of what was left is halved again, leaving one-fourth of the original quantity, and so on. Every radioactive element has its own half-life; for example, that of carbon-14 is 5730 years and that of uranium-238 is 4.5 billion years.
Radiometric dating techniques are based on radio-decay series with constant rates of isotope decay. Once a quantity of a radioactive element becomes part of a growing mineral crystal, that quantity will begin to decay at a steady rate, with a definite percentage of daughter products in each time interval. These "clocks in rocks" are the geologists' timekeepers.
Although the method is suited to a variety of organic materials, accuracy depends on the half-life to be used, variations in levels of atmospheric carbon-14, and contamination. (The half-life of radiocarbon was redefined from 5570 ± 30 years to 5730 ± 40 years in 1962, so some dates determined earlier required adjustment; and due to radioactivity more recently introduced into the atmosphere, radiocarbon dates are calculated from AD 1950.) The radiocarbon time scale contains other uncertainties, as well, and errors as great as 2000 to 5000 years may occur. Postdepositional contamination, which is the most serious problem, may be caused by percolating groundwater, incorporation of older or younger carbon, and contamination in the field or laboratory.
Thorium-230, part of the uranium-238 decay series, has a half-life of 80,000 years. Protactinium-231, derived from uranium-235, has a half-life of 34,300 years. Both parent elements are precipitated in the same proportions but at different rates. The ratio of the two changes regularly with time, showing greater differences in the quantity of undecayed parent isotopes in older sediments.
The ionium-thorium age method, applied to deep-sea sediments formed during the last 300,000 years, is based on the assumption that the initial ionium content of accumulating sediments has remained constant for the total section under study and is not derived from uranium decay; the age of the sample depends on this ionium excess, which decreases with time. In the ionium-deficiency method, the age of fossil shell or coral from 10,000 to 250,000 years old is based on the growth of ionium toward equilibrium with uranium-238 and uranium-224, which entered the carbonate shortly after its formation or burial. Similar disequilibrium relationships can be used to assess ages of carbonates in soils; this method is a complement to carbon-14 methodology.