There are several different radiometric isotopes that are commonly used in absolute dating. Each of these systems has different uses within geology in that they require different materials and can date objects within specific time frames.
Carbon-14 dating is of limited use within geology but is still the system that is familiar to most people. Carbon-14 (parent isotope) is found in organic material including bone, tissue, plants, and fiber. This isotope is found naturally in small amounts in the atmosphere within CO2 and is incorporated into plants during photosynthesis and then filters throughout the food chain. You currently have Carbon-14 in your body that is decaying to Nitrogen-14 (daughter isotope), but you replace it whenever you eat. When an animal stops eating or a plant stops photosynthesizing, the radioactive carbon starts to decay without being replaced, which can be easily measured. Carbon-14 has a very short half-life of 5,730 years and can only be used to date materials up to approximately 70,000 years. Given the age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years, carbon-14 can only be used to date very recent materials.
Uranium dating involves a complex system of multiple isotopes that decay through a chain reaction until it reaches the non-radiogenic lead. Surprising to most students, uranium can be found in many places, but it is normally in very minuscule amounts. Another issue with this system is that the daughter isotope, lead, is also found naturally in many different places, which makes it difficult to differentiate between lead formed from radiometric decay and lead found naturally in the environment. The mineral zircon solves both of these issues, by concentrating uranium and excluding lead from its mineral structure. Therefore, we use Uranium dating on zircons found within igneous rocks (such as volcanic ash or rocks formed deep in the earth). Uranium has a very long half-life of 4.5 billion years, which is more than long enough to date most rocks on Earth. It takes about one million years for the complex system to normalize such that Uranium dates of less than that are unreliable.
Potassium-Argon dating is also a useful method of dating rocks. Potassium decays into two separate daughter isotopes, Argon and Calcium. We measure the amount of Argon in the rocks because unlike calcium it is rare within minerals since it is a Noble Gas and doesn’t normally bond with other elements. Therefore, any argon within a mineral is from the decay of potassium. The use of Argon also has its drawbacks. For instance, gas can easily escape from a rock and, therefore, special care needs to be taken in the lab to prevent this. This system works well when there are multiple materials to examine that contain abundant potassium, like the rock granite that is full of potassium-rich pink minerals called feldspars. The half-life of Potassium is 702 million years, so it is similar to Uranium in that it is most useful for dating older rocks.
With all of these methods, there is still the chance for error such that it is best to think of any particular radiometric date as a scientific hypothesis that needs to be further tested. Error can come from the addition or subtraction of either parent or daughter isotopes in the rock following its formation. This can be done in several ways, most commonly through the adding of heat and pressure (metamorphism). There are ways to correct for these issues that allow the scientists to date both the rock and the metamorphic event as long as the geologic history is known.
As you may have guessed from the previous exercise, it is rare to find a rock that contains an amount of the parent remaining that falls exactly on one of the half-lives. In most cases, we need to use a simple formula to calculate the age of a rock using the length of the half-life and the amount of parent remaining.
The formula is:
t = t1/2 = The length of the half-life in years
P = The amount of the parent remaining in decimal form. For example, if there is 50% of the parent remaining it would equal 0.5.
Let’s work an example using the equation that we already know the answer to in advance. You have a sample of bone that has 25% of the Carbon-14 (Half-life= 5730 years) remaining, how old is the sample? We can answer this question in two ways:
1. We know that if there is 25% remaining, two half-lives have passed and with each half-life being 5730 the bone would be 11,460 years old.
2. We could use the above equation and insert both the length of the half-life and the amount of the parent remaining:
To solve the equation, take the Natural Log (ln) of 0.25 and multiply by the term in the parentheses (make sure to include the negative sign). If you do this you will get 11,460 as well.