Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Radioactive Dating: Uranium-Lead

The uranium-lead method is the longest-used dating method. It was first used in 1907, about a century ago. The uranium-lead system is more complicated than other parent-daughter systems; it is actually several dating methods put together.

Natural uranium consists primarily of two isotopes, U-235 and U-238, and these isotopes decay with different half-lives to produce lead-207 and lead-206, respectively. In addition, lead-208 is produced by thorium-232. Only one isotope of lead, lead-204, is not radiogenic.

The uranium-lead system has an interesting complication: none of the lead isotopes is produced directly from the uranium and thorium. Each decays through a series of relatively short-lived radioactive elements that each decay to a lighter element, finally ending up at lead. Since these half-lives are so short compared to U-238, U-235, and thorium-232, they generally do not affect the overall dating scheme. The result is that one can obtain three independent estimates of the age of a rock by measuring the lead isotopes and their parent isotopes. Long-term dating based on the U-238, U-235, and thorium-232 will be discussed briefly here; dating based on some of the shorter-lived intermediate isotopes is discussed later.

The uranium-lead system in its simpler forms, using U-238, U-235, and thorium-232, has proved to be less reliable than many of the other dating systems. This is because both uranium and lead are less easily retained in many of the minerals in which they are found. Yet the fact that there are three dating systems all in one allows scientists to easily determine whether the system has been disturbed or not.

Using slightly more complicated mathematics, different combinations of the lead isotopes and parent isotopes can be plotted in such a way as to minimize the effects of lead loss. One of these techniques is called the lead-lead technique because it determines the ages from the lead isotopes alone. Some of these techniques allow scientists to chart at what points in time metamorphic heating events have occurred, which is also of significant interest to geologists

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