Hafnium

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What is Hafnium?

Hafnium can be described as a chemical element with an atomic number 72 and the symbol Hf. It is a silvery gray, lustrous, tetravalent transition metal. This element chemically resembles zirconium and is found in various zirconium minerals. In 1869, the existence of this element was predicted by Dmitri Mendeleev, even though it was not previously identified by Coster and Hevesy until 1923, making it the last stable element to be discovered. The hafnium element is named after Hafnia, which is the Latin name for Copenhagen, where it was discovered. The hf element name is Hafnium.


Hafnium is used in electrodes and filaments. A few semiconductor fabrication processes use its oxide for the integrated circuits at 45 nm and smaller feature lengths. Some of the superalloys, that are used for any of the special applications contain hafnium in combination with the elements like titanium, tungsten, or niobium.


Hafnium Properties

Let us discuss a few physical and chemical hafnium properties in detail.


Physical Properties of Hafnium

  • Hafnium is a shiny and silvery metal that exhibits ductile features.

  • Usually, it is resistant to corrosion and exhibits similar chemical properties as zirconium. This similarity is due to valence electrons' presence, which is the same and that of the same group.

  • A thin protective layer film is formed on the metal when reacted with water, which shows corrosion occurrences.

  • The impurities that are present in the zirconium highly affect the hafnium metal. Therefore, both are considered to be the most inseparable.

  • There is no acid effect over the metal, but still, when ignited in the presence of oxygen, the metal produces oxides. This metal is highly resistant to a few concentrated alkalis.

  • Approximately 5.8 ppm of the earth's upper crust layer constitutes this metal, and this metal does not exist freely in the environment.

Chemical Properties of Hafnium

  • Hafnium reacts in the air to form a protective film that inhibits further corrosion. Acids do not readily attack this element, but it can be burnt in the air or oxidized with halogens. Similar to its sister metal, zirconium, finely divided hafnium can combust spontaneously in the air, and is therefore very resistant to concentrated alkali.

  • The chemistry of zirconium and hafnium is similar, where the two cannot be separated based on different chemical reactions.

  • The solubility in solvents and the melting and boiling points of the compounds are the primary differences in these twin elements' chemistry.

Occurrence of Hafnium

Hafnium is estimated to make up nearly 5.8 ppm of the upper crust of Earth by mass. It does not remain as a free element on the Earth. Instead, this metal can be found with a combination of a solid solution with natural zirconium compounds such as ZrSiO₄, zircon, which usually has about 1-4% of the Zr replaced by the Hf. In rare cases, the Hf/Zr ratio increases during crystallization to form isostructural mineral hafnon (Hf, Zr)SiO₄, with atomic Hf > Zr. Alvite is an obsolete name for zircon varieties containing unusually high Hf content.


Applications of Hafnium

Let us look at some of the applications of hafnium in various industries.

Most of the produced hafnium is used in the control rod manufacture for the nuclear reactors.


Many details add to the fact that there are only some technical uses for hafnium. Firstly, the close similarity between zirconium and hafnium makes it possible to use zirconium for many applications; as the next one, in the late 1950s, hafnium was first available as a pure metal after the nuclear industry usage for hafnium-free zirconium.


Moreover, the difficult separation techniques and low abundance necessary make it a scarce commodity. In 2014, when zirconium’s demand has dropped following the Fukushima disaster, the hafnium element’s price increased sharply from $500–600/kg to up to $1000/kg in 2015.


Production of Hafnium

The titanium ores' heavy mineral sands ore deposits rutile and ilmenite yield most of the mined zirconium, and then, as well as most of the hafnium.


Zirconium is also one of the good nuclear fuel-rod cladding metals, including the desirable properties of good chemical stability, and holds a very less neutron capture cross-section, taken at high temperatures. Due to the neutron-absorbing properties of hafnium, zirconium impurities will usually allow it to be much less useful for any nuclear-reactor use. Therefore, approximately, a complete separation of hafnium and zirconium is required for their use in nuclear power. Hafnium-free zirconium production is the major source of hafnium.


Precautions

Care should be taken when machining the hafnium metal because it is pyrophoric, and the fine particles can combust spontaneously when exposed to the air. Many people rarely encounter compounds that contain hafnium. This pure metal is not considered to be toxic. However, hafnium compounds should be handled carefully as if they were toxic. The metal's ionic forms are usually at the greatest risk for toxicity, and limited animal testing has been done for these compounds.


People can be exposed to the workplace's hafnium element by swallowing, breathing, eye contact, and skin contact. And, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration - OSHA, has set the legal limit (which is the Permissible exposure limit) for exposure to hafnium and its compounds in the workplace with TWA 0.5 mg/m³ up to an 8-hour workday. Also, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health - NIOSH has also set the same REL (Recommended Exposure Limit) at 50 mg/m³ levels; hafnium is immediately dangerous to health and life.


Did you know?

  • Hafnium elements contain a unique property of capturing neutrons. Thus, it can be used in the reactors' control rods and nuclear submarines as well.

  • It can be utilized widely in the microprocessors because they are involved in the leakage current reduction.

  • Its compounds are used in the alloy and ceramic industries since they carry higher melting points.

  • In the plasma cutting process, this metal serves as an electrode because it gives out electrons.

  • It can also be used in gas-filled lamps and incandescents.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. Explain the Microprocessor's Applications of Hafnium?

Answer: Compounds are Hafnium-based employed in gate insulators in the generation of 45 nm integrated circuits from IBM, Intel, and others. Hafnium oxide-based compounds are the practical high-k dielectrics, which reduces the gate leakage current that improves performance at such scales.

2. Explain Some Health Effects of Hafnium.

Answer: Not only hafnium but its compounds are said to be toxic; also possess fire hazards and explosive properties.


Overexposure can cause several health disorders such as developing irritation in the eyes, mucous membranes, and skin. There are not many environmental impacts shown by hafnium, except a few of them occurring very rarely.

3. List Some Hafnium Uses.

Answer: Hafnium has many uses in various industries, where a few of them are listed below.

  • Microprocessors,

  • Alloys,

  • Nuclear Reactors,

  • Isotope Geochemistry.