Since its discovery in 1892, zirconium has become one of the major players of the artificial jewelry industry. Thanks to its low cost, durability and brilliantly sparkling appearance, it serves as a substitute for diamond in fake ornaments. Zirconium, however, is more badass than one might think. Often used in power plants and even spacecrafts, this chemical substance is capable of resisting the damage caused by radiation, to a considerable extent.
The crystalline form of zirconium dioxide, known as cubic zirconia (CZ), bears startling resemblence to diamond. Containing two oxygen atoms bound with one zirconium atom, the material has a refractive index of around 2.15 to 2.16 and dispersion of nearly 0.058 to 0.066. It is extremely hard, almost brittle, with a specific gravity varying from 5.6 to 6.0. Because of their inherently high radiation tolerance, zirconium alloys help protect nuclear power plants, and space ships, against the destructive effects of radiation.
When cosmic rays and high-energy neutrons strike the space shuttle, they forcibly displace the surface atoms from their original position, thus causing corrosion and damage to the equipment. Furthermore, such powerful radiation poses severe health threat, to the ship’s crew, often resulting in direct, and irriversible, damage to one’s DNA, central nervouse system and so on. Zirconium compounds are capable of resisting radiation, by automatically repairing themselves after the onslaught of cosmic rays. These alloys form ionic bonds, through the transfer of electrons from one atom to another. As a result, the conjoined ions are significantly more agile than their previous forms, and can easily return to their former positions.
Despite its many impressive qualities, zirconium is known to possess quite a few drawbacks. At high temperatures, exposure to water leads to an oxidation reaction, resulting in the release of pure hydrogen gas. Being highly flammable, the resultant hydrogen can cause severe explosions, in the presence of oxygen, if not discharged properly. Such explosions have occurred in the past, for instance during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster as well as the 1986 Chernobyl Accident.