Zircomium is an element that can be found all around us. In fact, it is the nineteenth most commonly found periodic element in the Earth’s crust. While people have been aware of and handling zirconium for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until 1925 that large enough quantities could be extracted in pure enough form for practical use.
It is typically found in rock and sand deposits, from which it is mined and refined. The few byproducts and waste materials that are produced during the refining process are naturally common in typical beach sand. As such, disposal is generally cheap and easy with virtually no environmental impact.
Although zirconium is not as prevalent in mainstream vernacular as its cousin, titanium, its many virtues as a manufacturing material has caused its use to become rather widespread over the last 90 years.
In most cases Zirconium is converted to Zirconium dioxide which is also called zirconia. Because of zirconia’s chemical inertness and resistance to essentially all forms of corrosion, it is most commonly used as a protective element in nuclear reactors. Along with the fact that zirconium dioxide remains stable at extremely high temperatures, these properties have increasingly lead to its use in heat exchangers and piping systems. This trend is expected to continue, as components made with zirconia tend to increase energy efficiency while decreasing the need for costly building maintenance.
The applications don’t stop there. Zirconium derived materials are used in a variety of spacecraft. The stable electron configuration is yet another reason widely used as a refractory for purposes of metallurgy.
Zirconium is also used in the positron emission tomography imaging process. Commonly known as PET scanning, this technology is at the cutting edge of cancer diagnosis and treatment today. This is not zirconium dioxide’s first application in the medical field, however.
As mentioned, zirconium is exceptionally inert to both organic and inorganic compounds. This makes it an especially biocompatible element. In fact, trace amounts or zirconium can be found in all biological systems. For decades now, zirconia ceramics have been used as surgical prosthetics. This is especially true in the field of dental implants, where ceramic zirconia tooth implants are now widely regarded as the highest available standard of care.
The abundant availability of zirconium, along with its environmental and biological inertness, indicate that its use in modern products and technology is not likely to wane anytime in the foreseeable future. In fact, the unique physical and chemical properties of zirconia combine with mechanical durability to suggest that we have only begun to scratch the surface of technological applications for this benevolent element.