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Nickel

Back to Rocks and Minerals Articles

Kelly Snyder and Peter Russell

The Sudbury nickel ore was discovered while the Canadian Pacific Railroad was being built. Learn more about mining in Sudbury, or about the mining history of the Sudbury area.

Nickel, symbol Ni, is a silvery white, magnetic metallic element used chiefly in making alloys. The name nickel comes from the German word "kupfernickel" meaning Devil's copper or St Nicholas's (Old Nick's) copper.

Nickel was used by the Chinese in naturally occurring nickel-copper alloys for over two thousand years, but was not recognized as an element substance until 1751 when Swedish chemist, Baron Alex Frederic Constedt, isolated the metal from niccolite ore. It was not until 150 years later that nickel was first extracted on a commercial scale.

Nickel is found as a constituent in most meteorites and often serves as one of the criteria for distinguishing a meteorite from other earthly minerals. Iron meteorites, or siderites, may contain iron alloyed with from 5% to nearly 20% nickel. Meteorites provided a source of metal for sword blades used by warriors in China, Persia and Northern Europe.

Beautiful boxes and candlesticks made of white copper called paktong (were made in China) by adding zinc to what we now know as nickel-copper ores. The East India Company brought items such as these candlesticks to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Nickel is ferromagnetic, that is, it is attracted to a permanent magnet. It takes a high polish, and does not easily tarnish or rust. Nickel can be hammered into thin sheets or drawn into wires. One pound (0.4 kilogram) of pure nickel could be drawn into a wire 80 miles (130 kilometres) long.

Canada is the largest supplier of nickel is Canada with a huge deposit of mixed nickel and copper sulphide in Sudbury, Ontario. Similar deposits are found in Manitoba and Voisey's Bay, Labrador. Other countries with substantial nickel production are Russia, Australia, New Caledonia and South Africa. Some deposits are nickel-containing laterite ore, with considerable amounts of iron but no copper. Laterites form by the weathering of sulphide deposits in a tropical environment.

The Sudbury basin is one of the richest ore deposits in the world. Initially, interest in the Sudbury area was stimulated by the presence of high grade copper ore. In 1902 the Orford organization and the Canadian Copper Company amalgamated to form the International Nickel Company (Inco), and by 1905 Canada had replaced New Caledonia, a small island in the Pacific, as the world's leading source of nickel. Canadian nickel deposits were first discovered by railway workers building the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks when they came upon a copper-rich outcrop in Sudbury, Ontario. Hordes of prospectors were attracted, but many abandoned their claims upon finding that the copper was heavily contaminated with nickel. The ore is actually extremely rich in other valuable elements including platinum, palladium, iridium, rhodium, ruthenium, tellurium, selenium, cobalt, silver and gold.

In 1918, the refining of nickel to the finished metal product began in Canada with the building of Inco's refinery at Port Colborne, Ontario, using hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, the world nickel market virtually collapsed in the interwar years. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Sudbury's nickel deposits were again in demand and of great importance to the Allied war effort. Production soared during war time.

Mining in Manitoba began on a commercial scale with the discovery of the Thompson Mine ore body in 1956. That discovery led to an agreement with the Province of Manitoba which would allow Inco to make what was then the largest private capital investment in Manitoba history; $175 million to build not only a modern mine and plant site, but also to create the infrastructure for a community. That same project today would cost more than $2 billion dollars.

For the global nickel industry, Voisey's Bay is one of the most exciting discoveries of recent times. Inco's exploration program in the Voisey's Bay area continues to move forward. The company spent over $25 million in 1997 on exploration in Labrador, and INCO continues to believe that they will find at least 150 million tonnes of ore. Of the resources identified to date, the high-grade Ovoid ore zone of the Voisey's Bay deposit can be easily accessed by surface mining. Inco is looking for exploration targets which can be mined by surface methods since the capital and operating costs associated with underground mining are significantly higher.

Nickel is an essential element in today's industrial economies, with by far its largest use as a major component of stainless steel. Unfortunately, like a number of indispensable metals, it is costly to mine and process. In September 1999 Inco announced plans for their Goro project in New Caledonia in the South Pacific, a project that could contribute 60 million pounds, and perhaps more, of nickel annually. World nickel production is forecast to grow by as much as 30% over the next few years. There are many projects, in Australia, Indonesia, South America and elsewhere, moving forward to meet demand.

The first pure nickel coin ever issued was a 20 centime piece issued in Switzerland in 1881.

In the past 50 years Canada has maintained dominance in the area of nickel production. The United States is Canada's largest customer for nickel. About one third of the nickel mined in Canada is refined in the United Kingdom and Norway and is sold mainly to Western Europe and to the United States.

Inco is the largest producer of nickel in the world. However, Inco also buys a considerable amount of nickel on world markets to meet customers' needs. Inco helped to create the nickel industry in Canada nearly 100 years ago.

Primarily, nickel is used as an alloying element, being a component in some 3000 different alloys. Historically, the first nickel alloys were the result of smelting impure or mixed ores. Coins produced as early as 235 BC were made from a copper-nickel alloy. Cupro-nickels with 20 to 30% nickel and sometimes up to 10 per cent iron possess a useful combination of strength, ductility and corrosion resistance.

Most nickel is used in stainless steel, an alloy that consists of 8% nickel, 18% chromium and 74% iron. A recently devised 'superalloy' is nickel aluminide; it is six times stronger than stainless steel and gets even stronger at higher temperatures. It withstands temperatures up to 1000 degrees Celsius, which makes it useful in high performance jet engines.

Nickel is a coinage metal. In Canada, the 10-cent, 25-cent, 50-cent and old one dollar coin are pure nickel. Between 1955-1981 the 5-cent piece was also pure nickel. One can use these pure nickel coins for a simple experiment in ferromagnetism. Pick up the coin with a horseshoe magnet. If you heat up that nickel in a bunsen burner flame to 375 degrees Celsius, nickel loses its ferro-magnetic property and falls from the magnet. Upon cooling, it can be attracted to the magnet again.

New research reveals that nickel might be essential for growth in higher plants. Bean plants grown without nickel produced deformed leaflet tips, because of a build-up of urea. Nickel helps to break down urea at certain stages in the growth cycle of plants. A nickel-iron battery developed by Thomas Edison in 1907 could make a comeback in electrically powered vehicles. With a nickel positive plate and iron negative plate, the battery is much longer lasting than batteries currently in use.

Uses for nickel:

  • Additive in cast iron and steel
  • Batteries especially advanced nickel-metal hydride or nickel-cadmium batteries for electric vehicles
  • Armour plating for military vehicles
  • Bronze for marine uses
  • Catalyst for hydrogenating vegetable oils
  • Coins
  • Corrosion resistant alloys
  • Drilling collars
  • Electroplating
  • Glass –produces a green colour
  • Jet engines
  • Measuring devices
  • Offshore oil and gas rigs
  • Pendulum rods
  • Precision machine components
  • Rolls Royce automobiles
  • Sheet metal
  • Silver-plated cutlery and tableware
  • Stainless steel
  • Tableware
  • Tubing used in desalination plants for converting salt sea water into fresh water
  • Turbine blades
  • Watch hair springs
  • Weighing machines