How is zircon important to our everyday lives?
Zircon and its derivates have a unique set of physical properties which make it suitable for use in a wide variety of demanding applications.
Due to zircon being very hard, and having a high refractive index, it is important in the ceramics industry which consumes more than half of the zircon produced globally. Finely milled zircon grains scatter visible light, making ceramics appear white, glossy and opaque. Also resistant to scratching, classic examples are the ceramic tiles within your home, in public buildings and something you use every day, your toilet bowl. About 85 percent of the zircon used within the ceramics industry is used in tile production.
In the industrial space, zircon is used in refractory mortar, firebricks or refractory linings for glass and metal furnaces due to its chemical inertness, high corrosion resistance, and low solubility in molten silica and molten metal. Corrosion resistance is also key to zircon being used for pipes carrying harsh chemicals, nuclear reactor cladding, heat exchangers and speciality alloys.
The properties of zircon also make it ideal for use in sand casting and as a mould coating in die casting processes. Alloy turbine blades come from moulds using zircon compounds.
Zircon has made its way into the cosmetics industry. Antiperspirant sticks and gels commonly contain aluminium zirconium complexes to help dissolve sweat and stop it flowing to the surface of the skin.
With low ionic and thermal conductivity, zirconia is increasingly important in biomedical sciences to make durable implants with high strength and fracture toughness as a structural substitute for bones, hips and dental parts. You or a member of your family may have a new knee, hip or tooth implant, all of which are derived from zircon.
Zirconium chemicals are widely used in the paper industry as coatings that add strength and water resistance to paper. The global paper industry is increasingly using zirconium compounds to replace formaldehyde in paper manufacture.
Paints and inks contain zirconium additives to promote adhesion and increase resistance to heat, scrubbing, water and solvents. Importantly, zirconium has replaced lead in paints, reducing toxicity and assisting paint to dry.
Zirconium features strongly in cars and trucks where it’s used as a catalyst to reduce vehicle emissions, and also used as an ignition mechanism to inflate automotive airbags.
There are too many other uses of zircon to list in this column, but hopefully you can see that it’s a versatile and indispensable product in our lives and modern-day world.