Nickel is one of the most abundant metals on earth with interstellar origins. This silvery-white lustrous metal with a slight golden tinge, is the fifth most common element in the world. Although most of the earth’s nickel is inaccessible, residing in the core of our planet, large repositories can be found in New Caledonia, the Philippines, Russia, Australia, Canada and Indonesia.
Nickel and its alloys are among the strongest materials available and naturally, highly resistant to corrosion. Also, its use by humans can be traced back as far as 3500 BCE. Over the centuries, the uses of this metal have evolved and helped to advance our civilization. What does the future of this semi-precious metal hold? And, most importantly, how can nickel can benefit you?
Nickel in the past…
Unintentional uses date back to ancient times. But understanding of this metal are much more recent. This is due to the fact that nickel is easily mistaken for copper. Traces of nickel were found in bronze artifacts discovered in Syria. Similarly, ancient manuscripts suggest “white copper” was used between 1700 and 1400 BCE in China. Much later, the Chinese began exporting “white copper” to Britain in the 17th century.
In fact, the name of the metal relates to this confusion. Specifically, it was named after a mischievous sprite from German miner mythology, “Old Nick.” This personified the fact that copper-nickel ores resisted refinement into copper.
But Swedish chemist Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstedt was the first to isolate and classify nickel. One of the founders of mineralogy, Cronstedt realized the metal as a chemical element in 1751.
The first large scale smelting began in Norway in 1848. Then in 1889 engineers smelted it into steel. This dramatically increased the demand for nickel.
Metallurgists began using it for plating iron and brass components. In particular, chemistry sets and security equipment (particularly locks) needed to be clean, strong, and corrosion resistant. Similarly, Europeans began minting coins with nickel in the mid-19th century. Its innate corrosion resistance was highly valued. The United States even named its five-cent piece after the metal. It is also used in dimes and quarters.
“Why didn’t the quarter roll down the hill with the nickel? Because it had more cents.” hahahahaha
A so-called transitional metal, nickel is hard and ductile. As such, it be worked, deformed, and stretched without breaking. This is especially useful in metalworking. The metal be be hammered, rolled and drawn effectively. Furthermore, nickel is among the strongest structural materials available and deliver superior performance in elevated temperatures. As if all of this wasn’t enough, it also is very electrically and thermally conductive. Also noteworthy, it is one of only four elements that are magnetic at or near room temperature.
The Philippines, Indonesia, Russia, Canada and Australia are the world’s largest producers of nickel. About 60% of world production is used in nickel-steels, particularly stainless steel. But there are many other alloys in use today containing nickel. These include aluminum, chromium, copper, titanium and iron.
It is impossible to build a modern city without nickel. It’s a vital element in the aerospace, civil engineering, power generation, military, automotive, and petrochemical industries. How often do you use toasters, teapots, scissors, needles, vacuum cleaners, plumbing fixtures, handles, batteries, magnets, electric guitar strings, or microphones? All of these everyday items typically use nickel, and this list is far from exhaustive.
Similarly, the automotive industry can’t live without it. Spark plugs, thermostats, diesel valves, turbochargers, wheels, casing, airbag valves, gears, magnets, electromagnetic interference shielding, screening paints, and coatings utilize nickel. Electric vehicles and hybrids cars are especially reliant, as their batteries often require it.
… and future!
Nickel alloys are essential in creating electromagnets and electronic plating. It will continue to play a crucial role in the advancement of technologies from cell phones to high-speed rails.
Green energy especially stands to benefit from nickel alloys. Researchers at Penn State University discovered an important chemical reaction that generates hydrogen from water. This creates an efficient way to use water as fuel. Hydrogen and solar energy are becoming cheaper and more efficient by the day, and we largely have nickel to thank for this.
What should I use it for?
Almost anything you want! Strength, hardness and ductility, corrosion resistance, electrical and thermal conductivity, magnetic properties, and relatively low cost make nickel alloys incredibly versatile and suitable for a variety of applications.