Radiometric dating or radioactive dating is a technique used to date materials such as rocks or carbon, in which trace radioactive impurities were selectively incorporated when they were formed.
The method compares the abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope within the material to the abundance of its decay products, which form at a known constant rate of decay.
Another possibility is spontaneous fission into two or more nuclides.
While the moment in time at which a particular nucleus decays is unpredictable, a collection of atoms of a radioactive nuclide decays exponentially at a rate described by a parameter known as the half-life, usually given in units of years when discussing dating techniques.
Among the best-known techniques are radiocarbon dating, potassium-argon dating and uranium-lead dating.
By allowing the establishment of geological timescales, it provides a significant source of information about the ages of fossils and the deduced rates of evolutionary change.
Radiometric dating is also used to date archaeological materials, including ancient artifacts.
Different methods of radiometric dating vary in the timescale over which they are accurate and the materials to which they can be applied.
The procedures used to isolate and analyze the parent and daughter nuclides must be precise and accurate.
This normally involves isotope ratio mass spectrometry.
The precision of a dating method depends in part on the half-life of the radioactive isotope involved.
For instance, carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years.
Precision is enhanced if measurements are taken on multiple samples from different locations of the rock body.