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Potassium-argon dating

Potassium-argon or K-Ar dating is a geochronological method used in many geoscience disciplines. It is based on measuring the products of the radioactive decay of potassium (K), which is a common element found in materials such as micas, clay minerals, tephra and evaporites.


Decay series

Potassium (K) exists in 3 isotopes - 39K (93.2581%), 40K (0.0117%), 41K (6.7302%).

The radioactive isotope 40K decays to 40Ar and 40Ca with a half-life of 1.26x109 years. 40Ca is the most common form of Ca, however, so the increase in abundance due to K decay results in a negligible increase in total abundance making it less useful as a geochronometer. The 40Ar isotope is much less abundant however, and is therefore a more useful isotope.


Because argon is a gas, it is able to escape from molten rock. However, when the rock solidifies, the decayed 40Ar will begin to accumulate in the crystal lattices. In order to determine the 40Ar content of a rock, it must be melted and the isotopic composition of the released gas measured via mass spectrometry. It is also necessary to separately measure the amount of 40K in the sample. This can be measured using flame photometry or atomic absorption spectroscopy. The ratio between the 40Ar and the 40K is related to the time elapsed since the rock was cool enough to trap the Ar. This is the key principle behind K-Ar dating.

A problem with K-Ar dating is that if there is heterogeneity in the sample, then the aliquots used for determining K concentrations and 40Ar abundances may have different K/Ar. This can lead to an inaccurate date. Argon-argon dating is a similar technique which measures the isotopic content of the same sample, so this problem can be avoided.


Due to the long half-life, the technique is most applicable for dating minerals and rocks >100,000 years old. Although it finds the most utility in geological applications, it plays an important role in archaeology. One archeological application has been in bracketing the age of archeological deposits at Olduvai Gorge by dating lava flows above and below the deposits. It has also been indispensable in other early east African sites with a history of volcanic activity such as Hadar, Ethiopia.


  • K-Ar N. Mex. Geochron. Lab
  • Potassium-Argon Dating Univ. Cal.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Potassium-argon_dating". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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