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An Historical Perspective on Fission-Track Thermochronology

  • Anthony J. Hurford
Chapter
Part of the Springer Textbooks in Earth Sciences, Geography and Environment book series (STEGE)

Abstract

This chapter reviews the background, beginnings and early development of fission-track (FT) thermochronology. In the 1930s, it was discovered that uranium would break into two lighter products when bombarded with neutrons and, subsequently, that uranium was capable of natural, spontaneous fission. The fission process produced damage tracks in solid-state detectors, which could be revealed by chemical etching and observed by electron and, later, by optical microscopy. Fleischer, Price and Walker at the General Electric R&D laboratories developed diverse track-etching procedures, estimates of track registration and stability in different materials, track formation models, uranium determination in terrestrial, lunar and meteorite samples, neutron dosimetry and mineral dating using 238U spontaneous fission. Application to dating of natural and man-made glass was frustrated by low-uranium content and relative ease of track fading (annealing). In the 1970s–1980s, most FT analyses used apatite, zircon and titanite (sphene) to date tephra and acid intrusive rocks with the recognition of differing sensitivities of track annealing in each mineral. Studies in the Alps showed apatite with its greater susceptibility to annealing could provide estimates of the timing and rate of exhumation. The landmark 1980 Pisa FT Workshop highlighted problems with FT system calibration and emphasised the value of annealing in apatite to reveal thermal history. System calibration eventually reached a consensus agreement in 1988 at the Besançon FT Workshop with the majority of analysts adopting the zeta comparative approach. Multiple laboratory and borehole studies have determined the conditions for track annealing in apatite leading to widespread applications in exhumation, sedimentary basin, hydrocarbon exploration and other areas.

Notes

Acknowledgements

This chapter represents my attempt to piece together the story of tracks as I recall it, underlining the landmarks in the development of the method and mentioning some of the people responsible. I hope that this story will serve as a foundation for others, showing them how the FT method arrived where it is today and encouraging them to use and develop fission tracks to help understand all manner of geoscience problems. Remember that no chronometric method provides all the answers and measured data and modelled thermal histories should be evaluated against all other geological information. My apologies go to those whom I have omitted to mention or misrepresented—my sins are not wilful. I thank Andy Carter, Paul Green, Andy Gleadow, Diane Seward and Pieter Vermeesch who offered valuable comments on earlier drafts—some of which I took on board!—and Marco G. Malusà for drafting the figures. The previous volumes of Fleischer et al. (1975) and Wagner and van den Haute (1992) provide much more information on the basics of track formation, registration and etching, and I heartily commend them. I have made many good friendships in the FT community over the past 45 years and owe a debt of gratitude to all my colleagues for their support, discussion, enlightenment and correction. I especially acknowledge my gratitude to three people who have now passed away: Frank Fitch who started me thinking about tracks; and Bob Fleischer and Chuck Naeser who took much time and patience to teach me the trade. I am indebted to Günther Wagner for facilitating my sojourn in Berne, Switzerland; to Andy Gleadow, Paul Green and Andy Carter for their longstanding collaboration and personal friendships; and to my colleagues, students and friends past and present in the laboratory at University College London and Birkbeck, University of London, especially Rex Galbraith. I thank you all.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Potters BarUK

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