Zircon, a zirconium silicate, is currently the most important commercial zirconium-bearing mineral. Baddeleyite, a natural form of zirconia, is less important but has some specific end uses. Both zircon and baddeleyite occur in hard-rock and placer deposits, but at present all zircon production is from placer deposits. Most baddeleyite production is from hard-rock deposits, principally as a byproduct of copper and phosphate-rock mining.
World zirconium resources in identified, economically exploitable deposits are about 46 times current production rates. Of these resources, some 71 percent are in South Africa, Australia, and the United States. The principal end uses of zirconium minerals are in ceramic applications and as refractories, abrasives, and mold linings in foundries. A minor amount, mainly of zircon, is used for the production of hafnium-free zirconium metal, which is used principally for sheathing fuel elements in nuclear reactors and in the chemical-processing industry, aerospace engineering, and electronics.
Australia and South Africa are the largest zircon producers and account for more than 70 percent of world output; the United States and the Soviet Union account for another 20 percent. South Africa accounts for almost all the world's production of baddeleyite, which is about 2 percent of world production of contained zirconia. Australia and South Africa are the largest exporters of zircon. Unless major new deposits are developed in countries that have not traditionally produced zircon, the pattern of world production is unlikely to change by 2020. The proportions, however, of production that come from existing producing countries may change somewhat.