Radiometric dating process
All living organisms take up carbon from their environment including a small proportion of the radioactive isotope 14C (formed from nitrogen-14 as a result of cosmic ray bombardment).
The amount of carbon isotopes within living organisms reaches an equilibrium value, on death no more is taken up, and the 14C present starts to decay at a known rate.
For an element to be useful for geochronology (measuring geological time), the isotope must be reasonably abundant and produce daughter isotopes at a good rate.
Either a whole rock or a single mineral grain can be dated.
The rate of decay (given the symbol λ) is the fraction of the 'parent' atoms that decay in unit time.
For geological purposes, this is taken as one year.
This method is useful for igneous and metamorphic rocks, which cannot be dated by the stratigraphic correlation method used for sedimentary rocks. Some do not change with time and form stable isotopes (i.e.
Some techniques place the sample in a nuclear reactor first to excite the isotopes present, then measure these isotopes using a mass spectrometer (such as in the argon-argon scheme).
Others place mineral grains under a special microscope, firing a laser beam at the grains which ionises the mineral and releases the isotopes.
The Re-Os isotopic system was first developed in the early 1960s, but recently has been improved for accurate age determinations.
The main limitation is that it only works on certain igneous rocks as most rocks have insufficient Re and Os or lack evolution of the isotopes.