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Radiometric dating, often called radioactive dating, is a technique used to determine the age of materials such as rocks. It is based on a comparison between the observed abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope and its decay products, using known decay rates.


Becquerel accidentally found that a uranium-rich mineral emitted invisible, penetrating rays that could darken a photographic plate. Inthe French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel accidentally found that a uranium-rich mineral called pitchblende emitted invisible, penetrating rays that could darken a photographic plate enclosed in an opaque envelope.

This means that rays carry energy, but pitchblende emits them continuously without any energy input. This is an apparent violation of the law of conservation of energy. The emission of these rays is called nuclear radioactivity, or simply radioactivity.

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The rays are called nuclear radiation. A nucleus that spontaneously destroys part of its mass to emit radiation is said to decay. A substance or object that emits nuclear radiation is said to be radioactive. Becquerel found radiation to be associated with certain elements, such as uranium. Uranium is radioactive whether it is in the form of an element or compound. In addition, radiation does not vary with temperature, pressure, or ionization state of the uranium atom. Since all of these factors affect electrons in an atom, the radiation cannot come from electron transitions, as atomic spectra do.

She and her husband, Pierre, soon discovered two new radioactive elements, which she named polonium, after her native land of Poland, and radium, because it radiates. These two new elements filled holes in the periodic table and displayed much higher levels of radioactivity than uranium.

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Over four years, working under poor conditions and spending their own funds, the Curies processed more than a ton of uranium ore to isolate a mere gram of radium salt. Radium became highly desirable because it was about two million times as radioactive as uranium.

This radiation took its toll on them and other unaware researchers, though. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of two new elements, Curie remains the only person to win Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry. Marie suffered from radiation-induced lesions and died of leukemia, likely caused by radiation.

She was active in research almost until her death in The following year, her daughter and son-in-law, Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of artificially induced radiation. Radioactive decay occurs when an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by emitting energy in the form of emitted particles or electromagnetic waves, called radiation.

Isotopes are atoms of the same element thereby having the same of protons which differ in the of neutrons in their nucleus.

Radioactive dating

Some isotopes of a given element are more unstable than others, causing a nuclear reaction which releases energy to achieve a more stable nuclear configuration. There are many types of emmitted particles and radiation that radioisotopes produce when they decay. The types we will discuss here are: alpha, beta, and gamma listed in increasing ability to penetrate matter. Alpha decay is seen only in heavier elements greater than atomic 52, tellurium.

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The other two types of decay are seen in all of the elements. Table of modes of radioactive decay : Radionuclides can undergo a of different reactions, summarized here.

A nucleus with mass A and atomic Z is represented as A, Z. Alpha particles carry a positive charge, beta particles carry a negative charge, and gamma rays are neutral. Alpha particles have greater mass than beta particles. By passing alpha particles through a very thin glass window and trapping them in a discharge tube, researchers found that alpha particles are equivalent to helium He nuclei. Other experiments showed the similarity between classical beta radiation and cathode rays; they are both streams of electrons. Likewise, gamma radiation and X-rays were found to be similar high-energy electromagnetic radiation.

The three types of radiation have different levels of penetrating power. Penetrating power refers to the energy with which the radiation particles are ejected from the atom. The higher the energy, the more the particles or light produced by radioactive decay will penetrate a substance.

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Penetration of the modes of decay : Alpha particles can be completely stopped by a sheet of paper. Beta particles can be stopped by aluminum shielding. Gamma rays can only be reduced by much more substantial mass, such as a very thick layer of lead. This type of radiation has a positive charge due to the presence of two protons.

Their massive size compared to beta particles, for instance means alpha particles have very low penetration power. Penetration power describes how easily the particles can pass through another material.


Since alpha particles have a low penetration power, the outside layer of the human skin, for example, can block these particles. Alpha decay occurs because the nucleus of a radioisotope has too many protons. A nucleus with too many protons causes repulsion between these like charges. Examples of this can be seen in the decay of americium Am to neptunium Np. In radioactive nuclei with too many neutrons, a neutron can be converted into an electron, called beta particle.

Radiometric dating

During beta decay, the of neutrons in the atom decreases by one, and the of protons increases by one. Effectively, a neutron was converted into a proton in the decaying nucleus, in the process releasing a beta particle. Some decay reactions release energy in the form of electromagnetic waves called gamma rays.

However, unlike visible light, humans cannot see gamma rays, because they have a much higher frequency and energy than visible light.

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Gamma radiation has no mass or charge. This type of radiation is able to penetrate most common substances, including metals. The only substances that can absorb this radiation are thick lead and concrete. Radioactive decay rate is exponential and is characterized by constants, such as half-life, as well the activity and of particles.

Although these are constants, they are associated with statistically random behavior of populations of atoms. Predictions using these constants are less accurate for small of atoms.

Radioactivity is one very frequent example of exponential decay. The law of radioactive decay describes the statistical behavior of a large of nuclides, rather than individual ones. In the following relation, the of nuclides or nuclide population, N, is of course a natural. Exponential decay : A quantity undergoing exponential decay. Larger decay constants make the quantity vanish much more rapidly.

The negative indicates that N decreases as time increases, as each decay event follows one after another. The solution to this first-order differential equation is the function:. One Bq is defined as one transformation, decay, or disintegration per second.

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Since sensible sizes of radioactive material contain many atoms, a Bq is a tiny measure of activity; amounts giving activities on the order of GBq gigabecquerel, 1 x 10 9 decays per second or TBq terabecquerel, 1 x 10 12 decays per second are commonly used. Another unit of radioactivity is the curie, Ci, which was originally defined as the amount of radium emanation radon in equilibrium with one gram of pure radium, isotope Ra At present, it is equal, by definition, to the activity of any radionuclide decaying with a disintegration rate of 3.

The use of Ci is currently discouraged by the SI. Low activities are also measured in disintegrations per minute dpm. Since we are dealing with the half-life we will use values for N and N o that are equivalent to 0. Radioactive decay is a random process at the single- atom level; is impossible Equation for radioactive dating predict exactly when a particular atom will decay.

However, the chance that a given atom will decay is constant over time. For a large of atoms, the decay rate for the collection as a whole can be computed from the measured decay constants of the nuclides, or, equivalently, from the half-lives.

Radiometric dating

Radioactive decay simulation : A simulation of many identical atoms undergoing radioactive decay, starting with four atoms left and atoms right. The at the top indicates how many half-lives have elapsed. Given a sample of a particular radionuclide, the half-life is the time taken for half of its atoms to decay. The following equation is used to predict the of atoms N of a a given radioactive sample that remain after a given time t :. The half-life is related to the decay constant.

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Nuclear half-life: intro and explanation : Nuclear half-life is the time that it takes for one half of a radioactive sample to decay. In this video, we will learn the basics of nuclear half-life, and examine graphs and practice problems. This relationship between the half-life and the decay constant shows that highly radioactive substances are quickly spent, while those that radiate weakly endure longer. So, for 50 grams to decay to

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In this section we will explore the use of carbon dating to determine the age of fossil remains.


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By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:.


Because the radioactive half-life of a given radioisotope is not affected by temperature, physical or chemical state, or any other influence of the environment outside the nucleus save direct particle interactions with the nucleus, then radioactive samples continue to decay at a predictable rate and can be used as a clock.