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Zirconium Isotope Separation

South Africa is the second largest global producer of Zircon and Zirconium Oxide minerals mined from sand dunes. In 2012, South Africa produced 32% and Australia 40% of the total world production of 1,686 million tonnes which is estimated to be around 2.6 million tons in 2017.
The technical innovation of ASP technology, a quantum change innovation in isotope and gas specie separation efficiency, enables various products currently not possible. The ASP technology will introduce value added products of zirconium, hafnium, and silicon that are all present in the zircon and zirconium oxide minerals.
The various products are used in the nuclear energy sector; the solar market; the fiber optic market; the ceramic sector; the manufacturing sector; the zirconium chemicals market; etc. The products bring greater efficiency into existing processes such as in solar, fiber optics and the energy sectors that are important to these markets; and they also represent new products that cannot currently be produced by competitive methods.
Market offering and competitive advantage
Chemically ultra-pure compounds and metals are experiencing increasing market demand in several applications, e.g. chemical industry, solar and semi-conductor applications; medical applications and the nuclear power generation industry.
The competitive advantages can be collated as follows:
  • It has been known that isotopic enriched zirconium material can be commercially beneficial in the operation of nuclear power generation as it increases the electricity output. Zirconium has no volatile compounds and zirconium tetra-chloride can only be used at ~280 oC due to low volatility. ASP is the only process that can operate at this temperature and give effect to the commercial application of this function.
  • Hafnium is always present in zircon (1.5 - 3.0 weight %) and has almost identical chemistry to zirconium. This makes it difficult to separate the two and is only done when absolutely necessary through extensive and expensive chemical procedures. The innovation of ASP offers the separation of zirconium and hafnium based on their respective different atomic masses (masses 90-96 for Zirconium vs. masses 174-180 for Hafnium).
  • Hafnium is an excellent control material that regulates the power output of a nuclear power station.
  • The separation of silicon isotopes for the solar and semiconductor markets is also based on ASP technology which uses silane (SiH4) as the process gas. Incidentally, is silane also the chemical form used by the markets. Isotopic pure silicon increases the solar efficiency of sunlight conversion to electric current by 20%.
  • The chemical purity of silane for the solar and semi-conductor applications needs to be extremely high. ASP technology cleans up the silicon component from zircon mineral as a "spin-off" from the isotopic cleaning. It is environmentally friendly as it simply utilizes and reworks the different chemical components of zircon processing and does not introduce additional chemicals.

The processes are depicted in the diagram underneath.


(photo: http://www.absoluteafrica.com/Blog/)


The ASP technology is the only known method that can separate the isotopes of zirconium in an economically acceptable manner for the nuclear market.
The pictures underneath illustrate the process from the origin of zirconium in sand dunes to pure metal to metal cladding made of zirconium alloys for nuclear reactors.




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