Minerals used in isotopic dating
Although zircon (Zr Si O) is most commonly used, other minerals such as monazite (see: monazite geochronology), titanite, and baddeleyite can also be used.
Where crystals such as zircon with uranium and thorium inclusions do not occur, uranium-lead dating techniques have also been applied to other minerals such as calcite/aragonite and other carbonate minerals.
Undamaged zircon retains the lead generated by radioactive decay of uranium and thorium up to very high temperatures (about 900 °C), though accumulated radiation damage within zones of very high uranium can lower this temperature substantially.
Zircon is very chemically inert and resistant to mechanical weathering—a mixed blessing for geochronologists, as zones or even whole crystals can survive melting of their parent rock with their original uranium-lead age intact.
This damage is most concentrated around the parent isotope (U and Th), expelling the daughter isotope (Pb) from its original position in the zircon lattice.
In areas with a high concentration of the parent isotope, damage to the crystal lattice is quite extensive, and will often interconnect to form a network of radiation damaged areas.
Finally, ages can also be determined from the U–Pb system by analysis of Pb isotope ratios alone. Clair Cameron Patterson, an American geochemist who pioneered studies of uranium–lead radiometric dating methods, used it to obtain one of the earliest estimates of the age of the Earth.
As a result, newly-formed zircon deposits will contain no lead, meaning that any lead found in the mineral is radiogenic.
Since the exact rate at which uranium decays into lead is known, the current ratio of lead to uranium in a sample of the mineral can be used to reliably determine its age.
If a series of zircon samples has lost different amounts of lead, the samples generate a discordant line.
The upper intercept of the concordia and the discordia line will reflect the original age of formation, while the lower intercept will reflect the age of the event that led to open system behavior and therefore the lead loss; although there has been some disagreement regarding the meaning of the lower intercept ages.