Zirconium is a transition metal used mainly in nuclear reactors. It is lighter than steel and about as hard as copper, with a high resistance to corrosion.
Domestic Production and Use: The zirconium-silicate mineral zircon is produced as a coproduct from the mining and processing of heavy minerals. Two firms produced zircon from surface-mining operations in Florida and Virginia. Zirconium and hafnium metal were produced from zircon by two domestic producers, one in Oregon and the other in Utah. Typically, both elements are in the ore in a zirconium-to-hafnium ratio of about 50:1. Zirconium chemicals were produced by the metal producer in Oregon and by at least 10 other companies. Zirconia (ZrO2) was produced from zircon at plants in Alabama, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and by the metal producer in Oregon. Ceramics, foundry applications, opacifiers, and refractories are the leading end uses for zircon. Other end uses of zircon include abrasives, chemicals, metal alloys, welding rod coatings, and sandblasting. The leading consumers of zirconium and hafnium metal are the nuclear energy and chemical process industries.
Recycling: In-plant recycled zirconium came from scrap generated during metal production and fabrication and was recycled by companies in Oregon and Utah. Scrap zirconium metal and alloys were recycled by companies in California and Oregon. Zircon foundry mold cores and spent or rejected zirconia refractories are often recycled. Recycling of hafnium metal was insignificant.
Import Sources (2005-08): Zirconium mineral concentrates: Australia, 49%; South Africa, 46%; China, 3%; Russia, 1%; and other, 1%. Zirconium, unwrought, including powder: France, 50%; Germany, 23%; Japan, 12%; Australia, 8%; and other, 7%. Hafnium, unwrought: France, 60%; Germany, 21%; Canada, 8%; United Kingdom, 6%; and other, 5%.
Events, Trends, and Issues: Domestic consumption of zirconium mineral concentrates decreased significantly compared with that of 2008. Domestic mining of heavy minerals continued near Stony Creek, VA, and Starke, FL. Development of the Brink deposit in Virginia was completed in the first quarter and was expected to extend the economic life of the Virginia operations beyond 2015. In Green Cove Springs, FL, the reprocessing of mine tailings to recover zircon ended in April. In 2009, global financial difficulties led to decreased demand for ceramic, foundry, opacifier, and refractory products. Consequently, the global consumption of zirconium concentrates decreased significantly. In the longer term, however, consumption of zircon was expected to recover with average growth of 3% per year through 2015. Global production of zirconium concentrates (excluding the United States) decreased by 4% compared with that of 2008. Heavy mineral exploration and mining projects were underway in Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, and the United States. The availability of hafnium, produced as a byproduct during zirconium metal processing, continued to exceed demand.
Zirconium metal producers were beginning to increase capacity in anticipation of a resurgence of nuclear energy plants. In China, a U.S. zirconium producer formed a joint venture with a Chinese metal producer to build and operate a plant to produce nuclear-grade sponge at Nantong, Jiangsu Province. Production at the Nantong plant was scheduled to begin in 2012, and zirconium sponge was expected to be shipped to China and the United States. Another U.S. zirconium producer was expanding sponge capacity in Albany, OR, to an unspecified level.
World Mine Production and Reserves: World primary hafnium production statistics are not available. Hafnium occurs with zirconium in the minerals zircon and baddeleyite. The reserves estimates for Australia have been revised based on new information from Government and company reports.
World Resources: Resources of zircon in the United States included about 14 million tons associated with titanium resources in heavy-mineral sand deposits. Phosphate and sand and gravel deposits have the potential to yield substantial amounts of zircon as a future byproduct. Eudialyte and gittinsite are zirconium silicate minerals that have a potential for zirconia production. Identified world resources of zircon exceed 60 million tons.
Resources of hafnium in the United States are estimated to be about 130,000 tons, available in the 14-million-ton domestic resources of zircon. World resources of hafnium are associated with those of zircon and baddeleyite and exceed 1 million tons.
Substitutes: Chromite and olivine can be used instead of zircon for some foundry applications. Dolomite and spinel refractories can also substitute for zircon in certain high-temperature applications. Niobium (columbium), stainless steel, and tantalum provide limited substitution in nuclear applications, while titanium and synthetic materials may substitute in some chemical plant uses.
Silver-cadmium-indium control rods are used in lieu of hafnium at numerous nuclear powerplants. Zirconium can be used interchangeably with hafnium in certain superalloys; in others, only hafnium produces the desired or required grain boundary refinement.
Zirconium Producers Alkane Resources (ASX: ALK) - Dubbo Zirconia Project in Australia
Anglo American (NASDAQ: AAUK) - Their Namakwa Sands mine in South Africa is a major producer of zircon, which contains zirconium and hafnium.
Areva - (EPA: CEI) - http://www.areva.com/ - Their Cezus subsidiary produces zirconium metal
ATI Wah Chang - (NYSE: ATI) - zirconium sponge production and vacuum arc remelting
DuPont Titanium (NYSE: DD) - zircon from heavy-mineral sands near Starke, FL.
Iluka Resources (ASX: ILU) - zircon from heavy-mineral sands in Stony Creek, VA
Matamec Explorations (CVE: MAT) - Kipawa zirconium deposit
Neo Material Technologies (TSE: NEM) - http://www.magnequench.com/ - Mixed zirconium oxides, monoclinic zirconium oxides and zirconium chemicals
Tasman Metals (CVE: TSM) - Zirconium deposit in Norra Karr, Sweden
Ucore Uranium (CVE: UCU) ESPI High Purity Metals - http://www.espimetals.com/metals/catzirconium.htm
(wiki) - Zirconium on Wikipedia
Zirconium News 2011-07-26 - (im) - Alkane and Mintech in talks on Australia zirconium chemicals JV
2011-06-28 - (im) - Price briefing: Zircon marches on; chromite, graphite and soda ash prices expect H2 boost
2011-05-16 - (pi) - Alkane Resources signs JV to start production at the Dubbo Zirconia Project
2011-04-29 - (nwt) - ResearchInChina.com publishes global and China zirconium 2010 industry report
2011-04-26 - (dj) - Tasman drills thickest interval of heavy rare earth elements and zirconium at Norra Karr, Sweden
2010-11-11 - (for) - Names you need to know in 2011: Alkane Resources, for really rare earths
2010-11-10 - (ma) - Hindustan Dorr-Oliver to build desalination plant for DAE's Zirconium Complex
2010-11-09 - (nw) - Researchers ping key material in sonar, close gap on structural mystery
2009-04-24 - (reu) - Nuclear industry and zirconium