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Dating Techniques

Uranium Series Dating

Uranium series dating techniques rely on the fact that radioactive uranium and thorium isotopes decay into a series of unstable, radioactive "daughter" isotopes; this process continues until a stable (non-radioactive) lead isotope is formed. The daughters have relatively short half-lives ranging from a few hundred thousand years down to only a few years. The "parent" isotopes have half-lives of several thousand million years. This provides a dating range for the different uranium series of a few thousand years to 500,000 years. Uranium series have been used to date uranium-rich rocks, deep-sea sediments, shells, bones, and teeth, and to calculate the ages of ancient lake beds. The two types of uranium series dating techniques are daughter deficiency methods and daughter excess methods.

In daughter deficiency situations, the parent radioisotope is initially deposited by itself, without its daughter (the isotope into which it decays) present. Through time, the parent decays to the daughter until the two are in equilibrium (equal amounts of each). The age of the deposit may be determined by measuring how much of the daughter has formed, providing that neither isotope has entered or exited the deposit after its initial formation. Carbonates may be dated this way using, for example, the daughter/parent isotope pair protactinium-231/uranium-235 (231Pa/235U). Living mollusks and corals will only take up dissolved compounds such as isotopes of uranium, so they will contain no protactinium, which is insoluble. Protactinium-231 begins to accumulate via the decay of 235U after the organism dies. Scientists can determine the age of the sample by measuring how much 231Pa is present and calculating how long it would have taken that amount to form.

In the case of a daughter excess, a larger amount of the daughter is initially deposited than the parent. Non-uranium daughters such as protactinium and thorium are insoluble, and precipitate out on the bottoms of bodies of water, forming daughter excesses in these sediments. Over time, the excess daughter disappears as it is converted back into the parent, and by measuring the extent to which this has occurred, scientists can date the sample. If the radioactive daughter is an isotope of uranium, it will dissolve in water, but to a different extent than the parent; the two are said to have different solubilities. For example, 234U dissolves more readily in water than its parent, 238U, so lakes and oceans contain an excess of this daughter isotope. This excess is transferred to organisms such as mollusks or corals, and is the basis of 234U/238U dating.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Dating Techniques - Stratigraphy, Seriation, Faunal Dating, Pollen Dating (palynology), Amino Acid Racimization, Cation-ratio Dating - Relative dating, Absolute dating, Radioactive decay dating