Nickel Stocks and Flows: Where in the World Does Nickel Go?

Supply and Sustainability

It is well known where one should go to look in the ground for nickel. Specific discoveries of deposits remain to be made but the historic productive nickel-producing areas of the world such as Russia, Canada and Australia are being complemented by new production from Asia, South America and Africa.

Society has a good idea where future supplies of mining nickel will be coming from. Also clear is that there will not be enough nickel coming from mines to sustain a growing global population at a high level of healthy development and innovation.

First Use

It is also well known where the nickel goes, at least in its primary applications. Stainless steel always heads the list. The high nickel alloys are critical materials for specialized end-uses and, as such, are well known and closely watched. An increasing amount of nickel is converted into various chemical compounds for battery chemistries, catalysts, surface finishing applications and tens of thousands of products. It requires work but the vast majority of nickel can be traced to its major applications.

Then What?

The mining industry takes nickel from a significant but finite resource in nature and puts it into usable forms. Various industries take that material and convert it into materials and products. In this way a portion of the "stock" of nickel in the environment has been transformed and become a "stock" of nickel in society.

Most of the time, this nickel going into stock in society effectively becomes invisible to all except those who make their living looking for nickel-containing end-of-life products for collection and recycling. Collection and recycling is a large economic activity worldwide but not at all well understood in detail: how much nickel is there in society... and in what form? How long does is reside there? How much of it is recycled and how much goes to landfill? How much is being lost along the way... and where?

And most basic of all, will the nickel coming from mines plus the nickel coming from recycling collectively satisfy future needs?

The Stocks and Flows (STAF) Project

For the last decade, the Yale University Stocks and Flows (STAF) Project has been tackling these high level questions. For industrial alloying metals and other technologically significant materials, the STAF project has produced unique data based on innovative research tools. More importantly, it has established a high degree of intellectual rigour and, equally important, found innovative ways of expressing information for the better communication of insights. The products of the STAF project will influence researchers and governments for decades.

The best publicly available overview of the scope and outcomes of the STAF project is "Metal Spectra as Indicators of Development" by T.E. Graedel and J. Cao (2010) and is recommended for further reading.

The STAF Project and Nickel

Nickel was not the first material tackled by STAF: that was copper. But the Nickel Institute was beginning to ask the same sort of questions that Yale was investigating, especially those related to recycling and losses to the environment. The Nickel Institute became associated with the STAF project in 2002, provided funding and arranged some additional funding from the Government of Canada. All parties have benefited from the relationship and the unique research products related to nickel are described here.

With the permission of the STAF project and the lead researcher on nickel, Barbara Reck, four graphic figures are presented that show (1) the nickel life cycle, (2) the world nickel cycle in 2000, (3) the stainless steel life cycle and (4) the growth of stainless steel production in China 2000-2005.