Fission track dating

Fission track dating

Fission track dating is a radiometric dating technique based on analyses of the damage trails, or tracks, left by fission fragments in certain uranium bearing minerals and glasses. Uranium-238 undergoes spontaneous fission decay at a known rate. The fragments emitted by this fission process leave trails of damage in the crystal structure of the minerals enclosing the uranium. Etching of polished surfaces of these minerals reveals the "spontaneous fission tracks" for counting by optical microscopic means. The number of tracks correlates directly with the age of the sample and the uranium content. To determine the uranium content the sample is annealed by heating and exposed to a barrage of thermal neutrons. The neutron bombardment produces an induced fission of the uranium-235 in the sample and the resulting new "induced tracks" are used to determine the uranium content of the sample as the U-235:U-238 ratio is well known. Alternatively, a uranium-free piece of mica, the "external detector", is attached to the sample and both sample and mica are exposed to a barrage of thermal neutrons. The resulting induced fission of the uranium-235 in the sample creates new "induced track" in the external detector, which are revealed by etching. The ratio of "spontaneous tracks" to "induced tracks" is proportional to the age.

Apatite, sphene, zircon, micas and volcanic glass typically contain enough uranium to be useful in dating samples of relatively young age (Mesozoic and Cenozoic) and are the materials most useful for this technique. Additionally low-uranium epidotes and garnets may be used for very old samples (Paleozoic to Precambrian). Because heating of the sample above about 70 to 120 °C (for apatite - higher temperatures for other minerals) causes the fission damage tracks to heal over or anneal, the technique is useful for dating the most recent cooling event in the history of the sample. This "most recent" cooling event obviously may not coincide with the actual "formation age" of the mineral involved. This resetting of the clock can be used to investigate the thermal history of basin sediments, kilometer-scale exhumation caused by tectonism and erosion, low temperature metamorphic events, and geothermal vein formation.

The fission track method has also been used to date archaeological sites and artifacts. It was used to confirm the potassium-argon dates for the deposits at Olduvai Gorge.


* Naeser, C. W., "Fission-Track Dating and Geologic Annealing of Fission Tracks", in: Jäger, E. and J. C. Hunziker, "Lectures in Isotope Geology", Springer-Verlag, 1979, ISBN 3-540-09158-0
* U. S. G. S., "Fission Tracks: Technique", Retrieved 27 October 2005.
* "Fission Track", Retrieved 27 October 2005.

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