Do you tell your age? – High-precision U–Pb dating

A person’s age can be risky to determine without asking directly. But what about rocks and other materials on Earth?

How do scientists actually know the age of a rock? Geochronologists are real detectives able to unravel the age of minerals and rocks on Earth. One of the widespread methods within geochronology is the radiometric dating technique based on the radioactive decay of Uranium (U) into Lead (Pb). With this technique, geochronologists can date rocks of 100 million to billions of years old.

How does it work?

It works like a clock that starts ticking as soon as the rock is formed. Rocks often contain traces of the element uranium and some of the uranium (238U) decays to lead (206Pb). The rate at which this happens is constant and reported as “half-life” (i.e. the time required for half of the uranium to decay to lead). During the life of a rock, the amount of uranium decreases and the amount of lead increases. Young rocks have very high amounts of uranium and low amounts of lead content, whereas very old rocks have very little uranium and high lead amounts. Since the half-life is known and one can measure the uranium and lead contents in the rock, one can calculate the age of a rock.


As rocks contain of various minerals, geochronologists need to select the minerals that contain the most uranium. One of the mostly dated minerals is zircon (ZrSiO4). In order to get the age of the rock with precisions better than 0.1%, one would need to measure the uranium and lead isotopes of the zircon crystals very precisely. It’s not an easy task, but with magnetic sector mass spectrometry this can be done. Before being able to get analyzed on their isotope composition (238U/206Pb), uranium and lead must be separated from the zircon crystals. This is done by crushing the rock and separating the zircon crystals. Those get dissolved by chemical dissolution, followed by chemical separation procedure to separate the uranium from the lead. The final product is a solution containing the uranium and lead from the initial zircon crystals. This solution gets loaded onto a metal filament, heated and ionized in the mass spectrometer and separated on mass.

The Thermo Scientific™ Triton Plus™ TIMS is specially designed for these high precision isotope ratio analyses of zircons.

Features and Benefits for zircon analysis include:

  • State of the art ion detection system for highest stability and precision
  • New amplifier technology enabling high precision analysis for small samples
  • Highly efficient and stable ion source optics for highest ion transmission
  • Robust magnet for highest mass stability / high speed peak jumping
  • Low abundance sensitivity for minimized tailing

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For in-situ work, a laser ablation system coupled to an ICP-MS is ideal. With this, one can determine age variations within the zircon crystal. The Thermo Scientific™ Neptune Plus™ and Thermo Scientific™ Element XR™ are routinely coupled with laser ablation systems to provide U-Pb isotope data of zircons.

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Next to the uranium-lead technique, geochronologists also use Ar-Ar radiometric dating to get age information, for example, sanidine crystals from volcanic tuff. This technique is based on the K-Ar dating technique, where the ratio 40K/39K is constant and 40K is decaying to 40Ca and 40Ar. If 40Ar is trapped in a crystal and one can measure the ratio 40K/40Ar, then the time evolved since the crystal was formed can be calculated. For such analysis, geoscientists use static vacuum mass spectrometers. Especially for high precise Ar-Ar dating, Thermo Fisher Scientific has developed the Thermo Scientific™ Argus VI™ Noble Gas Mass Spectrometer. This instrument enables simultaneous analysis of all five Ar isotopes on a mixed Faraday-Ion Counting detection system.

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Source: by Dr. Claudia Bouman

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