What is Zirconium? - Uses, Facts, Properties & Discovery

Instructor: Sarah Pierce

Sarah has taught high school chemistry and biology, as well as college level chemistry(general, organic, analytical, biochemistry), and has a doctorate in chemistry.

This lesson covers the discovery and isolation of the element zirconium. We'll discuss its properties, uses, and the appearance of zirconium in the ceramic zirconia.


Think about your birthstone. If you are born in December, your birthstone is either turquoise, tanzanite, or zircon. Zircon is one of the oldest gemstones, dating back 4.4 billion years! It comes in a variety of colors, including the blue December birthstone. Its chemical formula for zircon is ZrSiO 4 .

Brown zircon gemstone

You also might be familiar with cubic zirconia. Cubic zirconia is a synthetic gemstone with the formula ZrO 2 . It also comes in a variety of colors.

Multicolor cubic zirconia gemstone
cubic zirconia

What do these two gemstones have in common? Both have the element zirconium! Have you ever wondered what zirconium is? Let's find out!

What Is Zirconium?

The name zirconium comes from the Arabic word zargun, which means golden color. Zirconium is the 40th element on the periodic table with the symbol Zr. This means that it has 40 protons in its nucleus and has the atomic number 40. It is located in period 5 and group 4 of the periodic table. Just as a reminder, the groups are the vertical columns and the periods are the horizontal rows.

Zirconium is in the group 4 and period 5 on the periodic table

Zirconium is a grey-colored metal that is malleable, meaning it can be bent and shaped. It is also ductile, which means it can be drawn into wires.

Zirconium is a grey-colored metal

Who Discovered Zirconium?

While zirconium has appeared in gemstones for a long time, it didn't become an element until 1789 by German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth. Klaproth was analyzing zircon when he discovered zirconium. He determined that zirconium was definitely an element, but he couldn't isolate it.

Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered zirconium

The Swedish chemist Jöns Berzelius was the first to successfully isolate zirconium in 1824. However, it was not very pure. Pure zirconium wasn't isolated until 1925 when the Dutch chemists Anton Eduard van Arkel and Jan Hendrik de Boer decomposed zirconium tetraiodide. Now zirconium is isolated by reacting magnesium with zirconium tetrachloride under heat.

What is Zirconium Used For?

Zirconium is very resistant to corrosion, so it is used to make chemical reaction vessels. It's also unaffected by the neutrons produced in nuclear reactions. Because of this, the tubing in nuclear reactors are made of zirconium. In fact, over 90% of zirconium is used for nuclear reactors!

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