Uranium-thorium dating, also called thorium-230 dating, uranium-series disequilibrium dating or uranium-series dating, is a radiometric dating technique commonly used to determine the age of calcium carbonate materials such as speleothem or coral. Unlike other commonly used radiometric dating techniques such as rubidium-strontium or uranium-lead dating, the uranium-thorium technique does not measure accumulation of a stable end-member decay product. Instead, the uranium-thorium technique calculates an age from the degree to which secular equilibrium has been restored between the radioactive isotope thorium-230 and its radioactive parent uranium-234 within a sample.
Thorium is not soluble in natural waters under conditions found at or near the surface of the earth, so materials grown in or from these waters do not usually contain thorium. In contrast, uranium is soluble to some extent in all natural waters, so any material that precipitates or is grown from such waters also contains trace uranium, typically at levels of between a few parts per billion and few parts per million by weight. As time passes after the formation of such a material, uranium-234 in the sample, with a half-life of 245,000 years, decays to thorium-230. Thorium-230 is itself radioactive with a half-life of 75,000 years, so instead of accumulating indefinitely (as for instance is the case for the uranium-lead system), thorium-230 instead approaches secular equilibrium with its radioactive parent uranium-234. At secular equilibrium, the number of thorium-230 decays per year within a sample is equal to the number of thorium-230 produced, which also equals the number of uranium-234 decays per year in the same sample.
Uranium-thorium dating has an upper age limit of somewhat over 500,000 years, defined by the half-life of thorium-230, the precision with which we can measure the thorium-230/uranium-234 ratio in a sample, and the accuracy to which we know the half-lives of thorium-230 and uranium-234. Note that to calculate an age using this technique the ratio of uranium-234 to its parent isotope uranium-238 must also be measured.
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