Zircon is an opaque, hard wearing, inert mineral, with approximately 1.1 million tonnes of zircon produced globally in 2014.
It is primarily used in the production of ceramic tiles. Other applications include use in refractories and foundry casting and a growing array of specialty applications in the form of zirconia and zirconium chemicals, including in nuclear fuel rods, catalytic fuel converters and in water and air purification systems.
Zircon's unique properties include a high refractive index, opacity (whiteness), wear and chemical resistance and thermal stability
Zircon usually occurs in lower quantities (lower assemblage) than titanium dioxide in mineral sands deposits.
Ceramics is the largest end use market of zircon, accounting for around 50 per cent of demand. Applications include tiles, sanitary ware and table ware. Regional tile demand is influenced by factors such as culture, climate, relative cost and personal taste. Regional tile demand is influenced by factors such as culture, climate, relative cost and personal taste. Traditionally Europe (Italy and Spain) and the Middle East have been the largest tile producers, however recently China and other developing economies have shown a strong preference for tiled floors and tile production has grown strongly.
Zircon is also the primary input to zirconia and a wide range of zirconium-based chemicals. China is the major global producer of zirconium oxy chloride and derivative products. These products are used in a multitude of manufacturing and consumer applications, including auto catalysts, fuel cell technology, electronics and abrasives.
Zirconium metal is used in nuclear fuel rods and in specialised metal alloys, due to its high melting point and chemical resistance. A small amount of zirconia is converted into the synthetic gemstone and cubic zirconia. The zirconia and zirconium-based chemicals end use segment is the fastest growing zircon end use with average annual growth of over 10 per cent since year 2000.
Zircon is also used in refractories, foundry and casting applications, such as for high precision casting of jet turbine blades.
Zircon demand is influenced by three main factors: urbanisation in developing economies, and the attendant increase in floor space under construction (much of which will be associated with ceramic tiling); consumption based growth which is expected to influence the intensity of use of zircon as well as titanium dioxide pigment; and the increasing array of end applications of zircon, particularly in zirconia and zirconium-based chemical applications.