An important step of a new process being developed for the beneficiation of the mineral zircon (Zr(Hf)SiO4) to produce nuclear grade zirconium (Zr) metal, is the separation of the Zr from the hafnium (Hf). Zr ores typically contain between 1 and 3 % Hf, whereas the use of Zr metal in the nuclear industry requires a Hf content <100 ppm, owing to its relatively high neutron-capture cross section. The separation step is therefore key in the preparation of nuclear grade Zr, which is considered to be very difficult due to the various similarities in their chemical properties.
The preparation of hafnium free zirconium relies on traditional wet separation systems, for example solvent extraction systems. In contrast to the traditional aqueous chloride systems, Necsa focusses on dry fluoride-based processes. Dry processes have the advantage of producing much less hazardous chemical waste.
In the work reported here, separation is achieved by sublimation/de-sublimation in the tetrafluoride form. The tetrafluoride is prepared by fluorination of plasma dissociated zircon (PDZ or Zr(Hf)O2∙SiO2) with ammonium bifluoride (ABF). The separation involves the selective sublimation of the two tetrafluorides in an inert atmosphere under controlled conditions, and subsequent similarly selective desublimation.
An accurate estimation of the sublimation rates of both the zirconium tetrafluoride (ZrF4) and hafnium tetrafluoride (HfF4) as a function of temperature is required since this forms the basis of the development of a sublimation model to determine whether the concept under consideration is theoretically possible. The sublimation kinetics of ZrF4 is reported in this paper.