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Critical in Spite of “Relatively Benign Supply Profile?” A Look at Nickel

When it comes to the metals and minerals underpinning the green energy transition, and specifically the EV battery revolution, much of the spotlight has fallen on lithium — and for good reason, as we will discuss in a forthcoming post.  However, as ARPN’s latest review of the “battery criticals” against the backdrop of the just-released latest iteration of the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries (see our posts on graphitemanganese and cobalt) shows, they are equally “critical” in their own ways. The same holds true for the next battery critical in our lineup – Nickel.

While Nickel’s biggest traditional application is in alloying, particularly in the production of stainless and heat-resisting steels, it is its ability to achieve good storage capacity and higher energy density in batteries at an affordable cost that has sent the material’s star soaring in recent years.  It has also sent demand projections soaring, as nickel’s role in the EV revolution takes center stage.

At the end of 2021, nickel was only one of two new metals (the bulk of the expansion of the list from 35 to 50 minerals and metals was owed to the fact that the Rare Earths and Platinum Group Metals were now listed individually) to be added to the revised U.S. Government List of Critical Minerals. As Reuters’s Andy Home wrote at the time, while a “relatively benign supply profile kept nickel off” in the past, there are two reasons for including it on the updated list:

Pointing to the only domestic operating nickel mine in the U.S. and a single producer of nickel sulphate (which only produces Nickel as a co-product), Home said “the USGS has expanded its criticality criteria to look beyond trade dependency to domestic supply, particularly what it calls ‘single points of failure.’”

The second reason, according to Home, was “nickel’s changing usage profile from alloy in stainless steel production to chemical component in electric vehicle batteries.”  The rapid uptake of EVs as a key to the net-zero carbon transition has propelled nickel onto the critical minerals list, and has sent carmakers like Tesla and others to embark on missions to secure their own supply chains.

This push gained new urgency with Indonesia’s investment minister hinting at the possibility of Jakarta pursuing the creation of an OPEC-like cartel for nickel (and other key battery materials) last fall.  What is resource nationalism to some is supply risk to others, and that’s clearly part of the narrative around nickel.

The looming specter of battery material cartelization – first introduced earlier this year by South American Lithium producers — along with soaring demand scenarios provided fresh impetus for U.S. stakeholders to kick the buildout of domestic battery supply chains into high gear wherever possible, and efforts to this effect are currently underway.

According to USGS, in 2022, the underground Eagle Mine in Michigan – currently the only U.S. primary nickel mine in operation – “produced approximately 18,000 tons of nickel in concentrate, which was exported to smelters in Canada and overseas. Nickel in crystalline sulfate was produced as a byproduct of smelting and refining platinum-group-metal ores mined in Montana. In Missouri, a company produced nickel-copper-cobalt concentrate from historic mine tailings and was building a hydrometallurgical processing plant near the mine site.”

But with the Eagle project entering its final years, Michigan’s near-neighbor Minnesota holds promise for strengthening the U.S. domestic nickel supply chain.

The first recipients of federal funding disbursed under the 2021 infrastructure law to “supercharge” U.S. manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles and the electric grid included the Tamarack Nickel Project in central Minnesota.  Talon Metals’ subsidiary Talon Nickel was one of 20 processing and manufacturing companies in 12 states chosen for a combined $2.8 billion award to “expand domestic manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles and the electric grid.” 

Talon, which had previously signed a six-year agreement with Elon Musk’s Tesla under which Tesla would buy 75,000 metric tons of nickel concentrate, is looking to use part of the government grant to further its plans to construct an ore-processing facility in Mercer County, situated in the east-central region of North Dakota.

As ARPN has noted, the Tamarack project had previously been awarded  $2.2 million to fund an effort to achieve carbon capture by a process that mineralizes the carbon in rock – a process far more stable than methods that inject carbon, where it remains vulnerable to seepage and fracturing due to earthquakes. Bringing the supply chain home could not only inoculate the U.S. from trade issues on the critical minerals front but could also help reduce the industry’s — arguably large — carbon footprint.

The project is expected to start the environmental review process this year, a process that will be closely watched in particular in light of the Biden Administration’s recent decision to withdraw northeastern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from future mining – a move that could effectively kill another nickel and copper project, the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota underground mine, which has seen an ongoing legal and regulatory battle over the years.

third proposed copper-nickel project in northeastern Minnesota — the PolyMet mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, just saw PolyMet Mining and Teck Resources finalizing a joint venture earlier this month to develop PolyMet’s copper-nickel deposit along with another larger ore body controlled by Teck. The project – a 50-50 venture, will be called NewRange Copper Nickel.

With the Tamarack and NewRange Copper Nickel projects situated in different watersheds, they are not affected by the Biden Administration’s Boundary Waters decision; however, as followers of ARPN well know, the not-in-my-backyard sentiment is a firm staple in the discourse over bolstering domestic supply chains, and brings us back to the “inherent irony” or “paradox of the green revolution” Reuters columnist Andy Home has invoked in several instances when covering critical mineral resource supply chains for the very materials underpinning the green energy transition — the paradox that “public opinion is firmly in favour of decarbonisation but not the mines and smelters needed to get there.”

As ARPN has previously pointed out – lofty goals of net carbon neutrality will not be achievable if we don’t embrace a push to secure critical mineral supply chains from “soup to nuts” to borrow a term used by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.  That means “all of the above,” including domestic production and processing of metals and minerals like nickel.

After all, as we’ve noted often at ARPN, the first word in supply chain is… supply.