Characteristics of Zirconia

The most popular dental ceramic systems are silica-, leucite-, lithium disilicate-, alumina-, and zirconia-based materials. Currently, zirconia-based ceramics are the most studied, challenging researches for different reasons.
Zirconia (zirconium dioxide, ZrO2), also named as “ceramic steel”, has optimum properties for dental use: superior toughness, strength, and fatigue resistance, in addition to excellent wear properties and biocompatibility.
Zirconium (Zr) is a very strong metal with similar chemical and physical properties to titanium (Ti). Incidentally, Zr and Ti are two metals commonly used in implant dentistry, mostly because they do not inhibit the bone forming cells (osteoblasts), which are essential for osseointegration .
Dental zirconia is, most often, a modified yttria (Y2O3) tetragonal zirconia polycrystal (Y-TZP). Yttria is added to stabilize the crystal structure transformation during firing at an elevated temperature and improve the physical properties of zirconia. Upon heating, the monoclinic phase of zirconia starts transforming to the tetragonal phase at 1187 °C, peaks at 1197 °C, and finishes at 1206 °C. On cooling, the transformation from the tetragonal to the monoclinic phase starts at 1052 °C, peaks at 1048 °C, and finishes at 1020 °C, exhibiting a hysteresis behavior. The zirconia tetragonal-to-monoclinic phase transformation is known to be a martensitic transformation. During this zirconia phase transformation, the unit cell of monoclinic configuration occupies about 4% more volume than the tetragonal configuration, which is a relatively large volume change. This could result in the formation of ceramic cracks if no stabilizing oxides were used. Ceria (CeO2), yttria (Y2O3), alumina (Al2O3), magnesia (MgO) and calcia (CaO) have been used as stabilizing oxides. So, as the monoclinic phase does not form under normal cooling conditions, the cubic and tetragonal phases are retained, and crack formation, due to phase transformation, is avoided . It is also important to consider that the stabilization of the tetragonal and cubic structures requires different amounts of dopants (stabilizers). The tetragonal phase is stabilized at lower dopant concentrations than the cubic phase. However, another way of stabilizing the tetragonal phase at room temperature is to decrease the crystal size (the critical average grain size is <0.3 μm) . This effect has been attributed to a surface energy difference . Consequently, zirconia-based ceramics used for biomedical purposes typically exist as a metastable tetragonal partially stabilized zirconia (PSZ) at room temperature. Metastable means that trapped energy still exists within the material to drive it back to the monoclinic phase. It turned out that the highly localized stress ahead of a propagating crack is sufficient to trigger zirconia grains to transform in the vicinity of the crack tip. In this case, the 4% volume increase becomes beneficial, essentially squeezing the crack to close and increasing toughness, known as transformation toughening .