Strong, stable, and reliable are the kinds of qualities you want from materials in power plants and plumbing, and that’s why zirconium has such a wide range of applications in these settings. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it can add a little sparkle to your life without depleting your bank account.
Zirconium in isolation occurs as a metal; it’s very strong, ductile, and malleable so it’s extremely useful in a number of combinations. One of the most important properties of zirconium is that fact that it is not corrosive, as this makes it an ideal metal for highly corrosive environments, like piping.
Though zirconium is relatively common on Earth (occurring at about 165 parts per million in the Earth’s crust), it’s much more common in lunar rocks and stars. Still, this metal can be found in minerals most commonly located in the U.S., Australia, and Brazil.
The most common form of zirconium in nature is zircon, a gemstone created through the combination of zirconium and silicate. This stone was how zirconium was first discovered in 1789 when a German chemist discovered an unknown element in a zircon sample.
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By far the most common use of zirconium is in nuclear facilities as an alloy in the tubing because of the fact that this element does not absorb neutrons. Zirconium alloys are popular in all sorts of other applications where strength and stability are important like catalytic converters and surgical instruments.
While zircon occurs naturally, another well-known stone called cubic zirconia does not. These manufactured stones combine dioxide with zirconium and are often used as an inexpensive diamond substitute.
This means that two forms of zirconium have been used as jewelry for centuries: both the natural and manufactured stones. As industry only advances further, it’s likely zirconium will present even more uses in the 21st century.