Know your Mineral – NICKEL

About the Metal/ Mineral: Nickel is a chemical element with the symbol NI (atomic number 28), silvery-white lustrous in appearance with a golden tinge. is not just corrosion and oxidation resistant it is the 5th most common element found on earth with its highest concentration found in the earth’s core and lowest in the crust? They’re highly reactive in powdered form and slow to react in larger pieces because of the oxidation on the surface. Pure native nickel is found in the earth’s crust in smaller amounts and its mostly found in the interiors as nickel-iron meteorites that were not exposed to oxygen. Nickel like Iron, Cobalt & Gadolinium is ferromagnetic

Usage& Consumption: Nickel is mined in about 35 countries and refined in 30 with usage in over 300,000 products in 3000 different alloy forms. Its usage varies from construction &automobiles to petrochemicals, power (&renewable energy) to electronics, transportation and extensively in plating. Major nickel-containing materials include stainless steels, superalloys, low expansion magnetic and shape memory alloys, alloy steels, cast irons and cast alloys, copper alloys, pure nickel & other alloys, plating and electroforming, nickel chemicals. The world’s mineral reserves of nickel are estimated between 90-100 million tons and currently the annual mining volume is 2 million tons. As an alloy it is also high temperature & high corrosion resistant making it conducive for industries such as Aerospace, Defence, Power, Energy & Petrochemicals. It is used as a premium coating material on base metals to improve resistance to corrosion & wear. It is estimated that in 2018, the stainless steel industry accounted for approximately 75% of all primary nickel usage and also consumed over 900,000 tonnes of scrap nickel. Its ductility, superior strength, hardness, and strength make its applications from being protective to a material that can be used in extreme applications.

The spotlight on nickel mining increased after its usage in the battery industry increased on account of the growth & global emphasis on Electric vehicles & the Mobile phone industry. The battery industry accounted for 4-5% with the remainder used by the other above-mentioned industries. Nickel is used in various combinations in batteries including Nickel-cadmium, Nickel-metal-hydride, Nickel-iron, Nickel-zinc, Nickel-hydrogen and Lithium-ion batteries which are named for their active material but often contain nickel material in their cathodes. Nickel is currently the most widely-used metal after lead for off-grid energy storage batteries. With a high recyclability, the use of nickel in batteries is expected to continue to grow. China is one of the largest consumers of the Nickel ore for the wide range of applications that have been outlined above.

Trends: Nickel and nickel compounds are widely used in a variety of different applications, both in the home and the wider society. The top 10 countries that accounted for 85% of the total world production is given below. Indonesia has become the 2nd largest world producer of Nickel registering a growth of over 85% in the last 2 years and last year the world’s largest exporter. Indonesia’s nickel smelting sector is dominated by foreign companies including Chinese players. The price of Nickel has been growing steadily except in the third quarter of 2019 where it spiralled towards higher prices due to Indonesia’s ban on trades. The exploration and find of new deposits and anti-cartelization moves is bound to bring price stability soon besides weakening demand for usage of Nickel in stainless steel from China. 

The global demand for Nickel is estimated to increase by 5-8% piggybacking on the shift to Electric Vehicles and increased usage of Nickel in batteries. Currently batteries consume 5% of global nickel but demand is rising rapidly and is expected to reach 8% by 2020. It is estimated that in the future both batteries and stainless steel will consume nickel in equal proportionswith global consumption touching 6 million tonnes by 2035. The worrisome part leading to steep price fluctuations is that batteries cannot use Nickel from NPI ore (Nickel Pig Iron ore) as the impurities are too high and needs high purity class 1 nickel for which China is tapping into nickel laterite deposits which are easy to mine but require advanced extraction (high pressure acid leaching) & processing facilities which will take time and may not meet immediate needs leading to this increasing prices for some time. Because NPI has ballooned considerably in the last decade, explorers and developers have not looked for conventional nickel deposits. An increased focus on exploration & finds for conventional sulphide deposits will help bridge supply gaps in this area in the mid term scenario.

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