Understanding Pr-Zr-Si Instability

A study of praseodymium zircon yellow pigments provides some important clues as to why these pigments lose their color intensity in high-temperature glazes.

Pr-Zr-Si yellow pigments are commonly used to produce yellow colors for dinnerware glazes. Photo courtesy of Buffalo China Inc., a subsidiary of Oneida Ltd.

While praseodymium is typically green in most salts, it is bright yellow in solid solution in a zircon crystal. It derives its color by being incorporated into the structure of the zircon crystal, which can be seen in the formula:


Praseodymium zircon (Pr-Zr-Si) yellow has been used extensively as one of the triaxial colors—along with vanadium zircon blue and iron zircon coral—for wall and floor tile, as well as dinnerware and pottery. However, due to perceived stability issues, it has been used to a lesser degree in high-fire sanitary glazes, where a zirconium vanadium (Zr-V) pigment is more common. The reason for this shift is illustrated in Figure 1, which shows the spectral reflectance curve for Pr-Zr-Si yellow (yellow line) versus Zr-V yellow (blue line) in a low-fire opacified wall tile glaze. In this application, the Pr-Zr-Si yellow has a stronger absorption at 450 nm, as well as a sharper absorption band, yielding a stronger, brighter color than the Zr-V yellow. However, this strength advantage disappears when the comparison is done in the sanitary glaze, with the absorption at 450 nm being equal. Because Zr-V yellows are more temperature-stable, these pigments are often preferred in these high-temperature glazes.

The general belief is that Pr-Zr-Si pigments dissolve in the glaze at these higher temperatures, with a resultant decrease in color. Researchers at Ferro Corp. decided to perform a number of experiments on Pr-Zr-Si pigments to better understand this phenomenon.

Figure 1. Spectral reflectance curve comparison in a low-fire opacified wall tile glaze.


A Pr-Zr-Si yellow pigment was made in the laboratory and was formulated with 2, 4 and 6% praseodymium and reacted at temperatures of approximately 900 degrees C. After calcination, the pigment was washed in a hydrochloric acid solution and filtered to remove any unreacted praseodymium. The washed pigment was then reheated to temperatures ranging from 1000 to 1400 degrees C with a two-hour soak. For comparison, the same heating cycle was performed on a zirconium vanadium yellow pigment. By thermally treating the pigments before they were put into the glazes, researchers were able to separate the effect of temperature on the pigments from the effect of dissolution on the glazes.

After each pigment was reheated, it was tested in three glazes: a cone 1 opacified fast-fire glaze, a cone 01-1 opacified wall tile glaze, and a cone 10 sanitaryware glaze. Peak firing temperatures for these glazes were 1120, 1090 and 1230 degrees C, respectively. The colors resulting from these trials were measured and described using the CIE Lab system, in which a higher b* value represents the most yellow pigment. In addition to color value, color strength was also calculated from a reflectance curve.

Figure 2. The b* value of the cone 1 opacified fast-fire glaze.
The yellow value of the pigment tested in the fast-fire glaze is shown in Figure 2. The color did not lose its b* value until it was reheated above 1100 degrees C. Above this temperature, the reheated pigment began to lose its color, with very little color remaining when the pigment was heated to 1400 degrees C.

Figure 3. The b* value of the cone 01-1 opacified wall tile glaze.
Similar color performance was seen in the traditional wall tile glaze shown in Figure 3, and the pigment strength is shown in Figure 4. It is interesting to note that within the range of 2 to 6% praseodymium content, a linear increase in strength occurred with the praseodymium content. This shows that the strength of the pigment is closely related to the praseodymium concentration.

Even more important to note is that the pigment strength can be explained by a series of linear relationships that correlate to the temperature at which the pigment was soaked. No significant change in strength occurred until the pigment reached 1100 degrees C. At this temperature, the color strength linearly declined until it reached 1350 degrees C, where it lost almost all of its pigmentary properties. The 4% praseodymium reached this line at 1180 degrees C, while the 2% pigment reached this line at 1270 degrees C. Beyond these temperatures, all of the pigments decreased in color strength together and were essentially undifferentiated.

Figure 4. Pigment strength as a function of praseodymium concentration.
As Figure 5 shows, the same general effect was seen in the sanitary glaze; however, some notable differences existed. The pigment with 6% praseodymium did not have the same color strength advantage seen in the lower temperature glaze. During the firing of the tile, the pigment experienced a temperature of 1230 degrees C and its strength decreased as if it were heat treated to this temperature. Upon overfiring these same glazed tiles at 1290 degrees C, the pigment lost even more strength. The maximum strength of the pigment can be estimated by the black line in the figure. As in the earlier trials, the pigment strength reached a minimum at approximately 1350 degrees C. However, in Figure 5, the decrease in strength does not occur until the heat treatment temperature of the pigment exceeds the firing temperature of the glaze. This is consistent with the model that temperature alone causes this strength decrease. In comparison, the strength of the Zr-V yellow showed only small changes in color due to heating of the pigment or the firing temperature of the glaze and was much more stable at these high temperatures.

Figure 5. A comparison of the pigment strength in different formulations.

Results and Further Analyses

These trials make a strong case that it is not dissolution that causes the Pr-Zr-Si yellow pigments to lose color at high temperatures but an instability in the pigment itself. Although these pigments do decrease in color with longer soak times, temperature is the most important variable.

A quick study was done to better understand this instability. X-ray diffraction showed that no changes occurred in either the phases or crystallinity of the pigment after reheating. Scanning electron microscopy showed that no significant change occurred in the zircon crystal morphology after thermal treatment (see Figure 6). Optical microscopy also showed little difference in morphology; however, it did show that the pigment was essentially colorless after the 1400 degrees C treatment.

So how did the crystals lose all their color while retaining their size, shape and crystal structure? Two possibilities exist—either the zircon pigment lost the praseodymium, or the chemical state of the praseodymium changed. To determine whether a loss of praseodymium was the culprit, researchers performed an extraction by washing untreated and thermally treated pigments with hot hydrochloric acid. If the pigment was not reheated, very little praseodymium was extracted. In the case where the pigment was heated to 1400 degrees C, 1.8% praseodymium was extracted with the acid washing. From these results, it can be concluded that praseodymium leaves the crystal at higher temperatures and is therefore unable to contribute to its yellow color. In this case, dissolution of the crystals in the glaze plays a minor role.

Figure 6. SEM images reveal that no significant change occurred in the zircon crystal morphology after thermal treatment.

Maintaining Stability

This study reveals that praseodymium zircon yellow pigments begin to lose strength at approximately 1100 degrees C, going almost colorless by 1350 degrees C, while zirconium vanadium yellow pigments exhibit little change during reheating—both as a powder and in a glaze—at these high temperatures. However, in the opacified glazes used in this study, the lack of stability can be explained by a color change in the crystals—not dissolution of the crystals in the glaze. Evidence exists that at least part of this decrease in strength is due to the migration of the praseodymium out of the praseodymium zircon crystal at temperatures above 1100 degrees C.

Although more research is needed to explain the mechanism of the color loss of Pr-Zr-Si yellow pigments, it is important to show that the pigment itself is unstable at higher temperatures. Because this loss in color is clearly related to temperature, a change in process temperatures when firing between 1100 and 1350 degrees C will yield a change in color of the Pr-Zr-Si yellow pigment. Reformulation of an opacified glaze would probably have little effect.

Despite their stability issues, Pr-Zr-Si yellow pigments continue to be a valuable addition to the glaze pallet. They are the most cost-effective means of producing yellow colors in ceramic glazes at most firing temperatures—in fact, using Pr-Zr-Si yellow pigments is the only way to produce a strong, vibrant yellow color without the use of cadmium. As a result, these pigments are commonly used in the hobby, dinnerware, ceramic wall and floor tile, and pottery industries. They are also used in the sanitaryware industry, even though the Zr-V yellow pigments are more stable at elevated firing temperatures.

Author’s Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Lori Pore for her preparation of the glaze trials in this study.

For more information

For more information about ceramic pigments, contact Todd Barson, Ferro Corp., 4150 E. 56th St., P.O. Box 6550, Cleveland, OH 44101; (216) 641-8580; fax (216) 641-8596; or visit http://www.ferro.com.

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