“It made the age of cheap foreign holidays possible, and for years it was what made margarine spreadable. Nickel may not be the flashiest metal but modern life would be very different without it.”
We couldn’t have introduced our next Gateway Metal any better than the BBC did in a feature story on Nickel and its uses last year. Nickel’s alloying properties have indeed transformed our lives – and without them, our best bet for long-distance travel might still be by train or ship. As the BBC outlines, the first jet engines made of steel in the 1930s and 1940s did not have sufficient heat and corrosion resistance. With Tungsten too heavy and Copper melting at too low a temperature, Nickel’s (with Chromium mixed in) strength, heat and corrosion resistance, low price point and light weight turned out to be the “Goldilocks recipe.” And, as the BBC writes:
“Today, the descendants of these early superalloys still provide most of the back end of turbines – both those used on jet planes, and those used in power generation.”
Other uses, again drawing from Nickel’s alloying capabilities, add to Nickel’s importance: Monel – a Nickel-Copper alloy, is stronger than steel, malleable and corrosion resistant, and comes at a significantly lower price point than other alloys, making it a material of choice “everywhere where corrosion is a concern – from chemists’ spatulas to the protective coating on bicycle sprockets.”
Invar – a Nickel-Iron alloy is used in precision instruments and clocks because it has the lowest thermal expansion of metals and alloys. Nitinol, a Nickel-Titanium alloy, is considered a “shape memory alloy” – a material that “remembers” their original shape. The BBC story has a fascinating clip demonstrating Nitinol’s memory, the composition of which can be tuned. This lends itself to applications in medicine, for example, where a rolled up Nitinol stent can be inserted into a blood vessel, and allow blood to flow through it once the body’s temperature prompts the stent to open itself out. Nitinol is also used in military, robotics and safety applications.
Suffice it to say that Nickel is a material that is here to stay. When factoring in Nickel’s Gateway Metal status, yielding access to materials like Cobalt, Palladium, Rhodium and Scandium (which we’ve discussed a fair amount because of its application in 3D printing technology), its importance only increases.
Meanwhile, USGS has revised its Nickel supply assessment in recent years. While previous year reports showed no domestic reserves for Nickel, reserves today are pegged at 160,000 metric tons – and one active new Nickel mine in Michigan produced 26,500 metric tons of concentrates for export to Canadian and overseas smelters. Our net import reliance for Nickel is 37 percent, and new projects in varying stages of development in Minnesota may further reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of Nickel.
This is a promising development, however to ensure a steady and stable supply of mineral resources fueling 21st Century technologies for our domestic industries, policy makers would be well advised to look at Nickel – and all other Gateway Metals and their Co-Products more comprehensively.