Age Dating from Electron Microprobe Analyses of U, Th, and Pb: Geological Advantages and Analytical Difficulties

Microsc Microanal. 2015 Oct;21(5):1114-22. doi: 10.1017/S1431927615000446. Epub 2015 May 4.


Electron microprobe analysis of U, Th, and Pb in naturally occurring minerals can indicate their age. Where the Pb is entirely due to the radioactive decay of U and Th, the time since mineral formation or equilibration can be calculated. Uraninite (UO2), monazite (REE PO4), zircon (ZrSiO4), and xenotime (YPO4) have been used, the latter containing U and/or Th in minor proportions. Any stable U- or Th-bearing phase can be considered. Careful analysis is required with attention to interferences, background measurement, detection limits, and Pb-free sample preparation. Extended counting times (600 s) at a probe current >200 nA are recommended. Ages can be determined from uraninite older than 2 Ma for a Pb detection limit of 0.02% and up to 700-1,000 Ma, after which Pb can be lost from the structure. The youngest monazite ages permitted by the Pb detection limit are 50-100 Ma and ages greater than 3,000 Ma have been determined. The method does not provide the detail of isotopic methods, but results can be obtained more readily. Examples show dating of cheralite ((Ca,Ce)(Th,Ce)(PO4)2), a rock containing primary and secondary UO2, and a suite of detrital uraninite grains that formed a part of a mineral exploration program.

Keywords: age dating; electron microprobe; monazite; uraninite; uranium-lead.