Zircon—Earth's timekeeper



One of the earliest written references to zircon is from Lydgate's edition of Aesop's Fables from c.1400 where a zircon was found ‘hid in the dunghill’. Since the humble surroundings of this early record, zircon has become a popular and important mineral. The name zircon is believed to have derived from the Persian words ‘zar’ and ‘gun’ meaning gold and colour respectively. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that wearing zircon jewellery was a cure against insomnia and protected against disease. In more modern times, zircon has found uses in industrial processes and is a key mineral for geologists investigating the geological history of the Earth. It can incorporate uranium which undergoes radioactive decay to lead at a constant rate. By measuring the ratios of uranium and lead isotopes, geologists can calculate the age at which zircons formed. Physical and chemical durability makes zircon able to survive for long periods of geological time and record information about hallmark geological events in Earth history, including early crustal formation, mountain-building events and mass extinctions. Indeed, the oldest known material on the planet is a zircon from Jack Hills in Western Australia, dated at 4.4 billion years old, a mere 0.15 billion years after the formation of the Earth. This remarkable durability has also led to zircon finding commercial applications in high-temperature industrial processes, such as brick foundries, while its chemical inertness makes it a potential material for testing the impact of the radioactive products of nuclear waste on mineral structures.