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From bathrooms to medical implants

What links ceramic tiles, nuclear reactor cores, anti-perspirants and dental implants?
Unless you are familiar with a naturally-occurring mineral called zircon, you can be forgiven for not knowing the answer. In fact, what is likely to cause even more surprise is the fact that zircon and its derivatives are used in countless every day products, most notably in the manufacture of ceramic tiles, but they also have many other critical and unique uses across the global industrial sector.

Mined mainly in Australia, and the African continent to the tune of over one million tonnes per year, zircon is extracted from ancient mineral sand deposits and has a unique set of properties that makes it ideal for use in a vast range of technically demanding applications.

While zircon’s uses are vast and varied, it is most predominantly used in the production of high quality ceramic tiles and sanitaryware, so it’s likely that millions of bathrooms and kitchens across the globe contain zircon.

The ceramic industry, by far the largest user of zircon, is well versed in the unique properties of this material. Its high refractive index ensures its use as an opacifier (a substance added to a material to increase opacity) thereby greatly increasing the whiteness and brightness of the tile, while its hardness and chemical resistance ensures that ceramics are resistant to scratching and chemical damage. More crucially, the environmental impact of zircon sand in ceramic tile production is now well understood. A study commissioned by the Zircon Industry Association demonstrated zircon’s lower environmental impact compared to the main alternative product, alumina, when used as an opacifier in the production of ceramic tiles.

Another vital use of zircon is within the refractory and foundry industries. Due to its very high thermal stability and non-wettability by molten metals, zircon is the technical choice for use in refractory materials for glass manufacturing, molten metal handling, and precision casting of metal components.

A derivative of zircon, cubic zirconia, is highly prized as a gemstone and is known by its more common name – the synthetic diamond. But what isn’t well known is that zirconia itself has, for decades, had a huge impact on modern life. And as scientific processes develop, its influence is sure to become even greater.

The properties that make zircon crucial in the production of ceramic tiles and glass also ensure that zirconia plays a key role in many varied aspects of the modern world.

The development of artificial joints such as hips and knees has gathered pace and achieved its current day success thanks to zirconia. The strength, hardness and wear resistance of the material, coupled with its natural biocompatibility with the human body, make zirconia an excellent material for medical prosthesis devises and cosmetic dentistry.

And it’s not only in the field of life-enhancing medicine that zirconia has a key role to play. Thanks to its unique blend of strength, toughness, wear and corrosion resistance, zirconia is ideal for use in the manufacture of high-stress components such as thermal insulators, thread guides, bearings and precision wall valves as well as electro ceramics used widely in the automobile, aerospace, telecom and even the most highly-regulated nuclear energy sector,

The material is also used for the ceramic coating of turbine blades as its thermal insulating properties allow the turbines to operate at much higher temperatures, resulting in significantly enhanced efficiency and therefore a much lower environmental impact.

Both zirconium-based metals and chemicals have extended uses in gemstone production, paper pigment, waterproof surface coatings and packaging, not forgetting the humble anti-perspirant and, as new technologies are developing even more uses for zircon and its derivatives are constantly being identified.

The role that zircon and its derivatives play in today’s world is clearly far-reaching and because of its unique qualities and environmental credentials, its importance is still growing.