Most people in developed nations have no idea how much the technology they use everyday depends on Hafnium, nor how access to this minor but critical element will shape future world economics and politics.
Shiny, silver and resisting corrosion, it’s named after the place where it was discovered in 1923: Hafnia (that’s Copenhagen, in Latin). Mendeleev predicted Hafnium’s existence when he developed the periodic table in 1869, but didn’t live to see any, because pure Hafnium (symbol Hf) doesn’t occur in nature; it’s always bound with Zirconium (Zr) compounds – usually in a Hf:Zr ratio of 1:50 – and it’s hard to extract. Until recently, Hafnium was just a low value by-product of the nuclear industry, separated from the Zirconium alloys used to clad fuel rods.
You’ve probably never seen Hafnium either, but it’s a sure bet you’re close to some right now: it’s inside the device with which you’ve accessed this article. The special properties of Hafnium oxide have recently permitted further miniaturisation of microprocessors, enhancing processing speed while eradicating overheating problems.
Hafnium is critical to advanced and developing technologies, due to its remarkable chemical and physical properties.
Chemically inert (i.e. resistant to corrosion), the metal and oxide forms of Hafnium also withstand extreme temperatures. Consequently, Hafnium is used in plasma cutting tips for welding, and is essential to the advancement of the aerospace industry, because it improves heat and creep resistance of its alloys in current and future Next Gen aircraft and rocket engines.
Hafnium carbide, with a melting point of about 3,900C, is one of the highest temperature resistant and hardest known materials known to man. Potentially suitable in a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) for faster spacecraft propulsion.
Hafnium oxide films could be used for passive cooling, or to make air-conditioning and refrigeration systems requiring little or no electricity. And the potential of Hafnium oxide nanoparticles to destroy cancer cells through radiation therapy is being explored.
So clearly, a high tech future will require more and more Hafnium. The global market for Hafnium is currently small (about 70 tonnes annually), and demand is predicted to double by 2025. Tight supply has already driven prices higher.
Where will we get all the Hafnium we’ll need?
The Chinese currently produce 75% of the world’s zirconium supply, which is the source of Hafnium. China’s stranglehold on the supply chain of a material essential to advanced technology for transport, information and communications, medicine and defence, weakens the economic and political security of other nations. I have explored this issue in detail in a previous post.
Ideally customers need a Hafnium supply chain that is:
- sustainable and traceable
- independent of the nuclear fuel industry
- not monopolised by China, nor any single nation or bloc
- independent of the Zirconium supply chain
- has the potential for ‘urban mining’ (i.e. recycling materials from technology at the end of its useful life)
- designed for complementary sourcing of other essential materials.
Alkane Resources’ Dubbo Project in western NSW, Australia, will tick all these boxes. It will produce 50 tonnes of Hafnium per annum at start up, rising to 200 tpa at full capacity. The project is construction-ready, having received all necessary government approvals, and has an estimated mine life of 70+ years. Enough supply to build a safer, cleaner, high tech future, while benefitting from a burgeoning market for essential Hafnium.