Zirconium is a very strong, malleable, ductile, lustrous silver-gray metal. At ordinary temperatures it has a hexagonal close-packed crystalline structure. Its chemical and physical properties are similar to those of titanium, the element above it in Group 4 of the periodic table. Zirconium is extremely resistant to heat and corrosion. It forms a number of compounds, among them zirconate (ZrO3-2) and zirconyl (ZrO+2) salts.
The most important compound is the oxide zirconia (ZrO2), used extensively as a refractory material in furnaces and crucibles, in ceramic glazes, and, formerly, in gas mantles. It occurs in nature as the silicate (ZrSiO4) and is used as a gemstone; it may be clear or colored, and is usually called zircon or hyacinth. Zirconium compounds also have minor uses as catalysts, in the dye, textile, plastics, and paint industries, and in pharmaceuticals such as poison ivy lotions.
The metal also has many other uses, among them in photographic flashbulbs and surgical instruments, in the removal of residual gases from electronic vacuum tubes, and as a hardening agent in alloys, especially steel. A major use of the metal is in nuclear reactors. It is employed in tubes for cladding uranium oxide fuel. It is well suited for this purpose because it is corrosion resistant and does not readily absorb thermal neutrons. It is specially purified to remove hafnium, which absorbs neutrons much more readily. It is usually alloyed with other metals to make it more corrosion resistant for these uses.
Zirconium is a fairly abundant element and is widely distributed in minerals, but it is never found uncombined in nature. It always occurs with hafnium, which has almost identical chemical properties. The chief ore is zircon (the silicate); baddeleyite (the oxide) also has some importance. Zircon is recovered (along with monazite, ilmenite, and rutile) from certain beach sands in New South Wales, Australia, and near Jacksonville, Fla. The metal is produced by the Kroll process. The zircon is treated with carbon in an electric furnace to form a cyanonitride, which is in turn treated with chlorine gas to form the volatile tetrachloride. The tetrachloride is carefully purified by sublimation in an inert atmosphere and is then chemically reduced to metal sponge by reaction with molten magnesium. The spongy metal is cleaned and further processed into ingots.
Special care is taken to exclude hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, which make the metal brittle. If the metal is too brittle to be worked, it can be further purified by the Van Arkel-de Boer process, in which the crude metal is reacted with iodine to form volatile iodides that are thermally decomposed on a hot wire, resulting in pure crystalline zirconium. The commercial metal usually contains between 1% and 3% hafnium; for nuclear reactor use the hafnium is usually removed by solvent extraction from the tetrachloride. Zirconium was discovered as the oxide zirconia in the mineral zircon by M. H. Klaproth in 1789 and was first isolated in impure form by J. J. Berzelius in 1824.
Zirconium (/ˌzɝˈkoʊniəm/) is a chemical element with the symbol Zr and atomic number 40. It is a lustrous, gray-white, strong transition metal that resembles titanium. Zirconium is used as an alloying agent due to its high resistance to corrosion. It is never found as a native metal, but is instead obtained mainly from the mineral zircon, which can be purified by chlorine. Zirconium was first isolated in an impure form in 1824 by Jöns Jakob Berzelius.
Zirconium has no known biological role. Zirconium forms both inorganic and organic compounds, such as zirconium dioxide and zirconocene dibromide, respectively. There are five naturally-occurring isotopes, three of which are stable. Short-term exposure to zirconium powder causes minor irritation, and inhalation of zirconium compounds can cause skin and lung granulomas.
The melting point of zirconium is at 1855°C, and the boiling point is at 4409°C. Zirconium has an electronegativity of 1.33 on the Pauling scale. Of the elements within d-block, Zirconium has the fourth lowest electronegativity after yttrium, lutetium, and hafnium.
The crystal bar process (or Iodide process), discovered by Anton Eduard van Arkel and Jan Hendrik de Boer in 1925, was the first industrial process for the commercial production of pure metallic zirconium. The process involved thermally decomposing zirconium tetraiodide. It was superseded in 1945 by a much cheaper process developed by William Justin Kroll, in which zirconium tetrachloride is broken down by magnesium.
Zirconium has a concentration of about 130 mg/kg within the earth's crust and about .026 μg/L in sea water, though it is never found in nature as a native metal. The principal commercial source of zirconium is the zirconium silicate mineral, zircon (ZrSiO4), which is found primarily in Australia, Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa, and the United States, as well as in smaller deposits around the world. 80% of zircon mining occurs in Australia and South Africa. Zircon resources exceed 60 million metric tons worldwide and annual worldwide zirconium production is approximately 900,000 metric tons.
Zircon is a by-product of the mining and processing of the titanium minerals ilmenite and rutile, as well as tin mining. From 2003 to 2007, zircon prices have steadily increased from $360 to $840 per metric ton. Zirconium also occurs in more than 140 other recognized mineral species including baddeleyite and kosnarite. This metal is commercially produced mostly by the reduction of the zirconium(IV) chloride with magnesium metal in the Kroll process. Commercial-quality zirconium for most uses still has a content of 1% to 3% hafnium.
This element is relatively-abundant in S-type stars, and it has been detected in the sun and in meteorites. Lunar rock samples brought back from several Apollo program missions to the moon have a quite high zirconium oxide content relative to terrestrial rocks.
See also Zirconium minerals.
Organozirconium chemistry is the study of compounds containing a carbon-zirconium bond. These organozirconium compounds are often employed as polymerization catalysts. The first such compound was zirconocene dibromide, prepared in 1952 by John M. Birmingham at Harvard University. Schwartz's reagent, prepared in 1970 by P. C. Wailes and H. Weigold, is a metallocene used in organic synthesis for transformations of alkenes and alkynes.
28 artificial isotopes of zirconium have been synthesized, ranging in atomic mass from 78 to 110. 93Zr is the longest-lived artificial isotope, with a half-life of 1.53×106 years. 110Zr, the heaviest isotope of zirconium, is also the shortest-lived, with an estimated half-life of only 30 milliseconds. Radioactive isotopes at or above mass number 93 decay by β−, whereas those at or below 89 decay by β+. The only exception is 88Zr, which decays by ε.
Zirconium also has six metastable isomers, 83mZr, 85mZr, 89mZr, 90m1Zr, 90m2Zr, and 91mZr. Of these, 90m2Zr has the shortest halflife at 131 nanoseconds. 89mZr is the longest lived with a half-life of 4.161 minutes.