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The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:

Q

How did scientists determine the half-life of 238U, a primordial radionuclide, to be about 4.5 billion years and what is the measurement error for this half-life?

A

As you have apparently inferred, when a radionuclide has a half-life that is long compared to the time interval over which radioactive decay observations are possible, the overall decay rate remains substantially the same and experimental measurements of the change in the activity of a given sample with time are not sufficiently precise to allow determination of the half-life. In such instances, one must employ alternative techniques to evaluate the half-life.

In the case of 238U and some other long-lived radionuclides, one approach that has been used is to separate a pure sample of the radionuclide in a known chemical form, weigh the sample, and then measure the activity, A (disintegration rate). The half-life is then determined from the fundamental definition of activity as the product of the radionuclide decay constant, λ, and the number of radioactive atoms present, N.

One solves for λ and gets the half-life from the relationship λ = ln2/T1/2. The number of atoms is determined from the measured mass of the sample, its fractional mass content of the radionuclide, and Avogadro’s number, No = 6.022 x 1023 atoms g-1 atomic weight.

For example, suppose we isolate 5.00 mg of pure 238UO2, which contains 4.41 mg of 238U. The uranium decays 100 percent of the time by alpha emission. If the 5 mg were deposited in a thin uniform layer and counted for its alpha activity, and we obtained a count rate of 16.9 cps with an alpha detection efficiency of 0.315 counts per disintegration (Bq-s), we would then calculate

A = 1014 cpm/0.315 c d-1 = 3219 dpm = λ N = (ln2/T1/2)(4.41 x 10-3 g/238.03 g/g-atomic weight)(6.022 x 1023 atoms/g-atomic weight).

If we solve for T1/2 we obtain T1/2 = 2.40 x 1015 minutes = 4.57 x 109 years.

This would compare to the presently accepted value of 4.468 x 109 years. See the Chart of the Nuclides on the Brookhaven National Laboratory site. The estimated uncertainty in this value is approximately 3 x 106 years. Naturally, the numbers used in the example were contrived, and the uncertainty in the result would have to consider all the uncertainties involved in the measurement. We have also not considered the complication associated with possible interference from 234U, which also occurs in natural uranium and also decays by alpha emission. Counting using alpha particle energy spectrometry is effective in separating the alpha particles from the two uranium isotopes.

There are other methods for half-life evaluation as well. Some include allowing the short-lived progeny, 234Th and 234Pa, to grow into the separated 238U and to count some of the progeny radiations.

It is also possible to make theoretical estimations of some radionuclide half-lives using a quantum-mechanical approach described as the Geiger-Nuttal Law, which provides a means for estimating the decay constant associated with alpha decay. If this is of interest to you, you might want to review a paper by Perepelitsa and Pepper that does some comparisons between the theoretical evaluation and experimental measurements for some alpha emitters. Hope this is helpful to you.

George Chabot, PhD, CHP

Ask the Experts is posting answers using only SI (the International System of Units) in accordance with international practice. To convert these to traditional units we have prepared a conversion table. You can also view a diagram to help put the radiation information presented in this question and answer in perspective. Explanations of radiation terms can be found here.
Answer posted on 14 September 2009. The information posted on this web page is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may affect the applicability of concepts, materials, and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice. To the best of our knowledge, answers are correct at the time they are posted. Be advised that over time, requirements could change, new data could be made available, and Internet links could change, affecting the correctness of the answers. Answers are the professional opinions of the expert responding to each question; they do not necessarily represent the position of the Health Physics Society.