Scientists Say: Zirconium | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Zirconium

This super-tough substance might be best known as an element in fake diamond
Feb 4, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
cubic zirconia earrings

Cubic zirconia looks like diamond from afar. But instead of being made of carbon, these rocks are a combination of the elements zirconium and oxygen.

Kristin Cacciavillani/iStockphoto

Zirconium (noun, “Zer-CONE-ee-um”)

The element zirconium is a hard, shiny, grey metal that is usually isolated from the mineral zircon. (That mineral also contains oxygen and silicon.) People mine zircon from the Earth’s crust.

Zirconium is very resistant to heat and other forms of radiation. It’s also hard to destroy or damage. This makes it useful in hot situations. For example, someone might use zirconium in a mold into which molten iron is poured. Zirconium is so tough that it’s also used in nuclear reactors to protect the outside world from the radiation inside.

When one atom of zirconium is bound to two atoms of oxygen, it becomes cubic zirconia. This is a shiny material that looks like a diamond. In fact, it’s often used in jewelry when someone wants a diamond’s appearance but doesn’t want to spend as much as a real diamond would cost. 

In a sentence

Scientists have looked for zirconium in moon rocks to find out where our lunar neighbor might have come from.

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Power Words

(more about Power Words)

atom     The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

crust     (in geology) Earth’s outermost surface, usually made from dense, solid rock.

diamond     One of the hardest known substances and rarest gems on Earth. Diamonds form deep within the planet when carbon is compressed under incredibly strong pressure.

Earth’s crust     The outermost layer of Earth. It is relatively cold and brittle.

element     A building block of some larger structure. (in chemistry) Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.

iron     A metallic element that is common within minerals in Earth’s crust and in its hot core. This metal also is found in cosmic dust and in many meteorites.

metal     Something that conducts electricity well, tends to be shiny (reflective) and malleable (meaning it can be reshaped with heat and not too much force or pressure). 

moon     The natural satellite of any planet.

oxygen     A gas that makes up about 21 percent of Earth's atmosphere. All animals and many microorganisms need oxygen to fuel their growth (and metabolism).

radiation     (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.

zirconium     A metallic element that is often used in structures needed to withstand high temperatures and radiation (such as nuclear reactors).