There are many different methods employed to obtain zirconia - zirconium dioxide (ZrO2), from zircon sand by chemical decomposition.

These methods, although distinct from each other, share three common features:

  1. they all involve the decomposition of zircon by chemical, thermal or mechanical means;
  2. all products obtained from zircon decomposition are subsequently treated by solubility differentiation; and
  3. they all involve the isolation of zirconium compounds from residual impurities.
Zirconia ingot
Zirconia ingot

Commercial production of zirconia

The principal methods include:

Zirconia properties and uses

Zirconia ceramic colours and pigments

Fused zirconia (zirconium oxide) is produced through the reduction and fusion of zircon sand (zirconium silicate). Zircon is mixed with coke and heated to its fusion point (in excess of 2,800 C) in an electric arc furnace where it dissociates to zirconium oxide and fumed silica.

Zirconia products are characterised by good mechanical properties and stability at high temperatures, strong thermal and corrosion resistance, chemical inertness and consistent quality.

They come in a wide range of particle sizes, down to micron sizes in various compositions from monoclinic zirconia to yttria- and magnesia-stablised zirconia.

They are used in a wide range of refractory products, ceramic colours and pigments and electronic applications. Other applications include friction materials, welding rods and zirconium metal and alloys.

Zirconia also occurs in its naturally occurring form, baddeleyite, from which purer grades can be extracted.

Sand cast
Sand cast
Photo credit: Electric furnace, Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp. - Alfred T. Palmer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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