Weak Zirconium Demand Depleting Hafnium Stock Piles

Hafnium, an unknown-to-mainstream metal, has seen sharp price increases, rising from about $500-600 per kg last year to its current price around $1,000 as stock piles continue to be depleted.

Some sources predict that the market might just run out of the metal within a decade if supplies cannot be replenished shortly.

What happened, and why is hafnium so important?

Traditionally, hafnium had been used as a neutron absorber in nuclear control rods. More recently, it found additional application in super alloys used in the aerospace industry and industrial gas turbines. It is used in plasma welding torches because of its high melting point; it acts as an electrical insulator in microchips, semiconductors, integrated circuits and as a catalyst in certain polymerization reactions. Hafnium is considered irreplaceable in many of these applications.

Hafnium, however, is not found in nature in its elemental form. It is obtained as a by-product of zirconium production where it requires a rather complicated separation process due its great chemical similarity with the latter. A ton of zirconium contains only between 10 and 50kg of hafnium. It is estimated that about 80t of hafnium are produced each year, not enough to cover the world’s demand.

Prices hit record highs when it became known that world stockpiles have been completely exhausted. Brazil and Australia are the metal’s biggest producers but output is linked to zirconium demand. Zirconium saw a sharp drop in demand after Fukushima, when markets expected nuclear power to decline in consumption – zirconium, too, finds large application in nuclear power plants.

Producers have vowed to crank up production but the dilemma remains: zirconium and hafnium, like in nature, are bound together in the market like Siamese twins.

Bodo Albrecht, 
tminsider@eniqma.com