Radiometric Dating - Fundamentals of Radiometric Dating - Radioactive Decay

Radioactive Decay

All ordinary matter is made up of combinations of chemical elements, each with its own atomic number, indicating the number of protons in the atomic nucleus. Additionally, elements may exist in different isotopes, with each isotope of an element differing in the number of neutrons in the nucleus. A particular isotope of a particular element is called a nuclide. Some nuclides are inherently unstable. That is, at some point in time, an atom of such a nuclide will spontaneously transform into a different nuclide. This transformation may be accomplished in a number of different ways, including radioactive decay, either by emission of particles (usually electrons (beta decay), positrons or alpha particles) or by spontaneous fission, and electron capture.

While the moment in time at which a particular nucleus decays is unpredictable, a collection of atoms of a radioactive nuclide decays exponentially at a rate described by a parameter known as the half-life, usually given in units of years when discussing dating techniques. After one half-life has elapsed, one half of the atoms of the nuclide in question will have decayed into a "daughter" nuclide or decay product. In many cases, the daughter nuclide itself is radioactive, resulting in a decay chain, eventually ending with the formation of a stable (nonradioactive) daughter nuclide; each step in such a chain is characterized by a distinct half-life. In these cases, usually the half-life of interest in radiometric dating is the longest one in the chain, which is the rate-limiting factor in the ultimate transformation of the radioactive nuclide into its stable daughter. Isotopic systems that have been exploited for radiometric dating have half-lives ranging from only about 10 years (e.g., tritium) to over 100 billion years (e.g., Samarium-147).

Even though some nuclides that decay by the process of electron capture, such as beryllium-7, strontium-85, and zirconium-89, are not fully suitable for radiometric dating because their decay rate may be slightly affected by local electron density, in general, the half-life of a nuclide depends solely on its nuclear properties and is essentially a constant. It is not affected by external factors such as temperature, pressure, chemical environment, or presence of a magnetic or electric field. Therefore, in any material containing a radioactive nuclide, the proportion of the original nuclide to its decay products changes in a predictable way as the original nuclide decays over time. This predictability allows the relative abundances of related nuclides to be used as a clock to measure the time from the incorporation of the original nuclides into a material to the present.

Read more about this topic:  Radiometric Dating, Fundamentals of Radiometric Dating

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