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What materials does radioactive dating used to determine the age of objects

By measuring the parent isotope radioactive and the daughter isotope radiogenic in a system for example, a rock , we can tell how long the system has been closed in our example, when the rock formed. The process of radiogenic dating is usually done using some sort of mass spectrometer.

A mass spectrometer is an instrument that separates atoms based on their mass. Because geochronologists want to measure isotopes with different masses, a mass spectrometer works really well for dating things. I do think that radiometric dating is an accurate way to date the earth, although I am a geochronologist so I have my biases. Most estimates of the age of the earth come from dating meteorites that have fallen to Earth because we think that they formed in our solar nebula very close to the time that the earth formed.

The fact that the age we calculate is reproducible for these different systems is significant. We have also obtained a very similar age by measuring Pb isotopes in materials from earth. I should mention that the decay constants basically a value that indicates how fast a certain radioactive isotope will decay for some of these isotope systems were calculated by assuming that the age of the earth is 4. The decay constants for most of these systems have been confirmed in other ways, adding strength to our argument for the age of the earth.


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Radiometric dating depends on the chemistry and ratios of different elements. It works like this:. Take, for example, zircon, which is a mineral; its chemical formula is ZiSiO 4 , so there is one zirconium Zi for one silicon Si for four oxygen O. One of the elements that can stand in chemically for zircon is uranium.

Uranium eventually decays into lead, and lead does not normally occur in zircon, except as the radioactive decay product of uranium. Therefore, by measuring the ratio of lead to uranium in a crystal of zircon, you can tell how much uranium there originally was in the crystal, which, combined with knowing the radioactive half-life of uranium, tells you how old the crystal is.

Obviously, if the substance you are measuring is contaminated, then all you know is the age since contamination, or worse, you don't know anything, because the contamination might be in the opposite direction - suppose, for example, you're looking at radio carbon carbon 14, which is produced in the atmosphere by cosmic rays, and which decays into nitrogen.

How Is Radioactive Dating Used to Date Fossils? | Sciencing

Since you are exposed to the atmosphere and contain carbon, if you get oils from your skin onto an archeological artifact, then attempting to date it using radio carbon will fail because you are measuring the age of the oils on your skin, not the age of the artifact. This is why crystals are good for radiometric dating: The oldest crystals on Earth that were formed on Earth are zircon crystals, and are approximately 4. Asteroids in the solar system have been clocked at 4.

We assume that the Earth is probably as old as the asteroids, because we believe the solar system to have formed from a collapsing nebula, and that the Earth, being geologically active, has simply destroyed any older zircon crystals that would be its true age, but we can't really be certain. The building blocks that the Earth is made of, the asteroids are 4. Based on astronomical models of how stars work, we also believe the Sun to be about 4. Radiometric dating is a widely accepted technique that measures the rate of decay of naturally occurring elements that have been incorporated into rocks and fossils.

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Every element is defined by the particular number of protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up it's atoms. Sometimes, the number of neutrons within the atom is off. These atoms, with an odd number of neutrons, are called isotopes. Because they do not have the ideal number of neutrons, the isotopes are unstable and over time they will convert into more stable atoms. Scientists can measure the ratio of the parent isotopes compared to the converted isotopes.


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The rate of isotope decay is very consistent, and is not effected by environmental changes like heat, temperature, and pressure. This makes radiometric dating quite reliable. However, there are some factors that must be accounted for.

Radiometric dating

For example, sometimes it is possible for a small amount of new "parent" isotopes to be incorporated into the object, skewing the ratio. This is understood and can be corrected for. Carbon is the most commonly used isotope for dating organic material plants, animals. Plants and animals continually take in carbon during their lifespan. Carbon dating is a technique used to determine the approximate age of once-living materials.

It is based on the decay rate of the radioactive carbon isotope 14 C, a form of carbon taken in by all living organisms while they are alive.

How Carbon Dating Works

Before the twentieth century, determining the age of ancient fossils or artifacts was considered the job of paleontologists or paleontologists, not nuclear physicists. By comparing the placement of objects with the age of the rock and silt layers in which they were found, scientists could usually make a general estimate of their age. However, many objects were found in caves, frozen in ice , or in other areas whose ages were not known; in these cases, it was clear that a method for dating the actual object was necessary.

In , the American chemist Bertram Boltwood — proposed that rocks containing radioactive uranium could be dated by measuring the amount of lead in the sample. This was because uranium, as it underwent radioactive decay , would transmute into lead over a long span of time. Thus, the greater the amount of lead, the older the rock. Boltwood used this method, called radioactive dating , to obtain a very accurate measurement of the age of Earth. While the uranium-lead dating method was limited being only applicable to samples containing uranium , it was proved to scientists that radioactive dating was both possible and reliable.

The first method for dating organic objects such as the remains of plants and animals was developed by another American chemist, Willard Libby — He became intrigued by carbon — 14, a radioactive isotope of carbon. Carbon has isotopes with atomic weights between 9 and The most abundant isotope in nature is carbon — 12, followed in abundance by carbon — Among the less abundant isotopes is carbon — 14, which is produced in small quantities in the earth 's atmosphere through interactions involving cosmic rays.

In any living organism, the relative concentration of carbon — 14 is the same as it is in the atmosphere because of the interchange of this isotope between the organism and the air.

Radioactive Dating of Fossils

This carbon — 14 cycles through an organism while it is alive, but once it dies, the organism accumulates no additional carbon — Whatever carbon — 14 was present at the time of the organism's death begins to decay to nitrogen — 14 by emitting radiation in a process known as beta decay. The difference between the concentration of carbon — 14 in the material to be dated and the concentration in the atmosphere provides a basis for estimating the age of a specimen, given that the rate of decay of carbon — 14 is well known.

The length of time required for one-half of the unstable carbon — 14 nuclei to decay i. Libby began testing his carbon — 14 dating procedure by dating objects whose ages were already known, such as samples from Egyptian tombs. He found that his methods, while not as accurate as he had hoped, were fairly reliable. Libby's method, called radiocarbon or carbon — 14 dating, gave new impetus to the science of radioactive dating.

Using the carbon — 14 method, scientists determined the ages of artifacts from many ancient civilizations.