As an exceptionally versatile metal, nickel enjoys a special place in the industrial world. With its lustrous, silvery-white appearance, low thermal and electrical conductivities, high resistance to corrosion and oxidation, excellent strength and toughness at higher temperatures, ability to be magnetized, and a melting point of 1453° C, nickel is not only attractive and durable in its own pure form; it also readily alloys with many other metals.
Nickel is readily recognized in coins, where it is used by many countries in both pure and alloy forms, and as bright and durable electrolytically-applied “nickel plating” coatings on steel. Its primary use, however, is as an alloying component with chromium and other metals in the production of stainless and heat-resistant steel used not only in industry and construction, but also for household products such as pots and pans, kitchen sinks, and other everyday items. Stainless steel is produced in a wide range of compositions to meet industry requirements for corrosion and heat resistance, and also to facilitate a clean and hygienic surface for food and other processing.
About 65% of nickel is used to manufacture stainless steel. Around 20% is used in other steel and non-ferrous alloys, often for specialized industrial, aerospace and military applications. About 9% is used in plating, while 6% in used in other applications, including coins and a variety of nickel chemicals. As the emerging middle class in countries such as China and other Asian nations demand more stainless steel products from sinks to door handles, nickel consumption is on the rise. Stainless steel currently accounts for about two-thirds of nickel consumption up from one-third in the past three decades. While nickel demand in Europe and the Americas decreased in the period from 1997-2002, this demand increased in Asia and the former East Bloc countries.
Chinese nickel consumption increased by 15.4% in 2005, slightly less than the 19.1% growth reported in 2004. Chinese consumption during this decade has actually been the single largest factor impacting the nickel market, with supply struggling to keep pace with this rising demand due to a physical shortage of the metal. In fact, China recently announced a cut-back in stainless steel production because they are unable to source enough nickel.
This rising demand and limited supply is pushing up prices. As of July 2006, nickel was trading at over $12.00US per pound in contrast to historical prices of less than $5.00US over the previous 15 years. Experts predict that this continued high demand – based not only on China ‘s continuing economic boom but also on the West’s demand for hygiene, will continue for the foreseeable future.
Only about 1.3 million tons of new or primary nickel are produced and consumed annually, compared with over 15 million tons of copper and nearly 800 million tons of steel. The growing world economy through the mid-nineties triggered an expansionary drive in nickel capacity by existing manufacturers resulting in a production increase of 30% in the five year period from 1993-1998. European expansion in both Finland and the United Kingdom accounted for most of the 48% (60,000 ton) increase in production, while expanded production in Australia and New Caledonia accounted for all of the 39% (35,000 ton) increase in Oceania . Japan accounted for most of the 22% increase in production in Asia during that same period.