Problems with radiometric dating of rocks

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Part-way along the tube a magnetic field induced by an electromagnet deflects the charged particles.The amount of deflection will depend upon the atomic mass of the particles so different isotopes are separated by their different masses.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.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.A number of elements have isotopes (forms of the element that have different atomic masses) that are unstable and change by radioactive decay to the isotope of a different element.Each radioactive decay series takes a characteristic length of time known as the radioactive half-life, which is the time taken for half of the original (parent) isotope to decay to the new (daughter) isotope.

This is the most widely used system for radiometric dating of sedimentary strata, because it can be used to date the potassium-rich authigenic mineral glauconite and volcanic rocks (lavas and tuffs) that contain potassium in minerals such as some feldspars and micas.

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 ratio of 39 K to 40 K is a known constant so if the amount of 39 Ar produced from 39 K can be measured, this provides an indirect method of calculating the 40 K present in the rock.

Measurement of the 39 Ar produced by bombardment is made by mass spectrometer at the same time as measuring the amount of 40 Ar present.

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