Zirconium is a gray-white metal with a similar appearance to titanium. It is a chemical element represented by the symbol Zr and atomic number 40. It is never found as a free metal because it reacts with water, but it is present in more than 140 minerals. The name zirconium comes from the mineral zircon, which is the most important source of the metal. The largest deposits of this mineral are found in Australia, Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and the United States. Australia and South Africa are the largest miners of the mineral. The mineral zircon has been known since ancient times, it was even recorded in the bible, but the discovery of the pure metal didn’t occur until much later.
Who discovered zirconium?
The first person to announce the existence of Zirconium was German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth in 1789 although he couldn’t actually produce the metal. Klaproth discovered the new element while analyzing a jargoon, a zircon that can be cut as a gemstone, from Sri Lanka. He named the new element Zirkonerde (zirconia).
An impure for of the metal was first extracted by Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius in 1824. Despite this, the pure metal wasn’t extracted until 1914! In 1925 Dutch chemists Anton Eduard van Arkel and Jan Hendrik de Boer discovered the crystal bar process and this was the first industrial process for producing the pure metal. In 1945 the Kroll process, developed initially for producing titanium by William Justin Kroll, became the most common way to produce the zirconium metal.
Did you know?
Although about 900,000 tonnes of zircon is mined each year only a small fraction of this is turned into zirconium!