Hafnium is a shiny, silvery, ductile metal that is corrosion-resistant and chemically similar to zirconium (due to its having the same number of valence electrons, being in the same group, but also to relativistic effects; the expected expansion of atomic radii from period 5 to 6 is almost exactly cancelled out by the lanthanide contraction). The physical properties of hafnium metal samples are markedly affected by zirconium impurities, especially the nuclear properties, as these two elements are among the most difficult to separate because of their chemical similarity.
A notable physical difference between these metals is their density, with zirconium having about one-half the density of hafnium. The most notable nuclear properties of hafnium are its high thermal neutron capture cross section and that the nuclei of several different hafnium isotopes readily absorb two or more neutrons apiece. In contrast with this, zirconium is practically transparent to thermal neutrons, and it is commonly used for the metal components of nuclear reactors – especially the cladding of their nuclear fuel rods.
Hafnium reacts in air to form a protective film that inhibits further corrosion. The metal is not readily attacked by acids but can be oxidized with halogens or it can be burnt in air. Like its sister metal zirconium, finely divided hafnium can ignite spontaneously in air. The metal is resistant to concentrated alkalis.
The chemistry of hafnium and zirconium is so similar that the two cannot be separated on the basis of differing chemical reactions. The melting points and boiling points of the compounds and the solubility in solvents are the major differences in the chemistry of these twin elements.
At least 34 isotopes of hafnium have been observed, ranging in mass number from 153 to 186. The five stable isotopes are in the range of 176 to 180. The radioactive isotopes' half-lives range from only 400 ms for 153Hf, to 2.0 petayears (1015 years) for the most stable one, 174Hf.
The nuclear isomer 178m2Hf was at the center of a controversy for several years regarding its potential use as a weapon.
Zircon crystal (2×2 cm) from Tocantins, Brazil
Hafnium is estimated to make up about 5.8 ppm of the Earth's upper crust by mass. It does not exist as a free element on Earth, but is found combined in solid solution with zirconium in natural zirconium compounds such as zircon, ZrSiO4, which usually has about 1–4% of the Zr replaced by Hf. Rarely, the Hf/Zr ratio increases during crystallization to give the isostructural mineral hafnon (Hf,Zr)SiO4, with atomic Hf > Zr. An obsolete name for a variety of zircon containing unusually high Hf content is alvite.
A major source of zircon (and hence hafnium) ores is heavy mineral sands ore deposits, pegmatites, particularly in Brazil and Malawi, and carbonatite intrusions, particularly the Crown Polymetallic Deposit at Mount Weld, Western Australia. A potential source of hafnium is trachyte tuffs containing rare zircon-hafnium silicates eudialyte or armstrongite, at Dubbo in New South Wales, Australia.
Hafnium reserves have been infamously estimated to last under 10 years by one source if the world population increases and demand grows. In reality, since hafnium occurs with zirconium, hafnium can always be a byproduct of zirconium extraction to the extent that the low demand requires.