Potassium, an alkali metal, the Earth's eighth most abundant element is common in many rocks and rock-forming minerals. The quantity of potassium in a rock or mineral is variable proportional to the amount of silica present. Therefore, mafic rocks and minerals often contain less potassium than an equal amount of silicic rock or mineral. Potassium can be mobilized into or out of a rock or mineral through alteration processes. Due to the relatively heavy atomic weight of potassium, insignificant fractionation of the different potassium isotopes occurs. However, the 40 K isotope is radioactive and therefore will be reduced in quantity over time.
Argon Geochronology Methods
Potassium—argon dating , abbreviated K—Ar dating , is a radiometric dating method used in geochronology and archaeology. It is based on measurement of the product of the radioactive decay of an isotope of potassium K into argon Ar. Potassium is a common element found in many materials, such as micas , clay minerals , tephra , and evaporites. In these materials, the decay product 40 Ar is able to escape the liquid molten rock, but starts to accumulate when the rock solidifies recrystallizes. The amount of argon sublimation that occurs is a function of the purity of the sample, the composition of the mother material, and a number of other factors. Time since recrystallization is calculated by measuring the ratio of the amount of 40 Ar accumulated to the amount of 40 K remaining. The long half-life of 40 K allows the method to be used to calculate the absolute age of samples older than a few thousand years.
The potassium-argon K-Ar isotopic dating method is especially useful for determining the age of lavas. Developed in the s, it was important in developing the theory of plate tectonics and in calibrating the geologic time scale. Potassium occurs in two stable isotopes 41 K and 39 K and one radioactive isotope 40 K. Potassium decays with a half-life of million years, meaning that half of the 40 K atoms are gone after that span of time. Its decay yields argon and calcium in a ratio of 11 to
The attraction of the method lies in the fact that one of the daughter elements is argon which is an inert gas. This means that the geologist can plausibly assume that all argon gas escapes from the molten magma while it is still liquid. He thinks this solves his problem of not knowing the initial quantity of the daughter element in the past and not being able to go back in time and make measurements.