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The accumulation of trapped electrons, and the gaps left behind in the spaces they vacated, occurs at a measurable rate proportional to the radiation received from a specimen’s immediate environment.When a specimen is reheated, the trapped energy is released in the form of light (thermoluminescence) as the electrons escape.
Because this accumulation of trapped electrons begins with the formation of the crystal structure, thermoluminescence can date crystalline materials to their date of formation; for ceramics, this is the moment they are fired.
The major source of error in establishing dates from thermoluminescence is a consequence of inaccurate measurements of the radiation acting on a specimen.
Energy absorbed from ionising radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, cosmic rays) frees electrons to move through the crystal lattice and some are trapped at imperfections in the lattice.
Subsequent heating of the crystal can release some of these trapped electrons with an associated emission of light.
The wavelength of the emitted light is characteristic of the luminescent substance and not of the incident radiation.