Nickel is a naturally-occurring metallic element with a silvery-white, shiny appearance. It is the fifth-most common element on earth and occurs extensively in the earth’s crust and core. Nickel, along with iron, is also a common element in meteorites and can even be found in small quantities in plants, animals and seawater.
While the concentration of nickel in the earth's crust is 80 parts per million, the earth's core consists mainly of a nickel-iron alloy
Nickel has outstanding physical and chemical properties, which make it essential in hundreds of thousands of products. Its biggest use is in alloying - particularly with chromium and other metals to produce stainless and heat-resisting steels.
The terms “reserves” and “resources” are used to describe the availability of raw materials. The Committee for Mineral Reserves International Reporting Standards defines the terms as follows: “A mineral resource is a concentration or occurrence of solid material of economic interest in or on the Earth’s crust in such form, grade or quality and quantity that there are reasonable prospects for eventual economic extraction. A mineral reserve is the economically mineable part of a Measured and/or Indicated Mineral Resource.”
‘Reserves’ imply an increased level of knowledge and confidence. Mining companies continuously convert resources into reserves by exploration. In most cases therefore, limitations in the availability of raw materials are less an issue of whether there is enough raw material in the ground, than whether there is enough production capacity available in a short time frame to satisfy a sharp increase in demand.
The world’s nickel resources are currently estimated at almost 300 million tons.
Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Russia and Canada account for more than 50% of the global nickel resources. Economic concentrations of nickel occur in sulphide and in laterite-type ore deposits.
Despite the fact that nearly 80% of all nickel historically mined was extracted over the past three decades, known nickel reserves and resources have also steadily grown. Various parameters play a role in this evolution, including better knowledge of new deposits in remote areas and increased exploration activities by mining companies, driven by attractive commodity prices. Improved technologies in mining, smelting and refining, as well as increased capacities, also allow for lower-grade nickel ore to be processed. Decreasing ore grades are therefore not necessarily a sign of diminishing resources, but a reflection of innovation and improvements made in mining and process technology.
There are also reckoned to be significant nickel deposits in the deep sea. Manganese nodules, which are found on the deep-sea floor, contain significant amounts of nickel. Recent estimates indicate more than 290 million tons of nickel contained in such deposits. The development of deep-sea mining technologies is expected to facilitate access to these resources in future.
units: tonnes. Source Nickel resources: Mudd and Jowitt (2014) - A detailed assessment of global nickel resource trends and endowments. In: Economic Geology v. 109 pp 1813-1841.
Source Nickel reserves: U.S. Geological Survey, 2019, Mineral commodity summaries 2019: U.S. Geological Survey, 200 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/70202434. ISBN 978-1-4113-4283-5
Nickel occurs naturally, principally as oxides, sulphides and silicates. Primary nickel is produced and used as ferro-nickel, nickel oxides and other chemicals, and as more or less pure nickel metal. Over two million tonnes of new or primary nickel are produced and used annually in the world.
There are many different nickel ores requiring a variety of techniques to extract the nickel.
Nickel-containing ores are currently mined in more than 25 countries worldwide.
Click on the map below to find out more about mining and production in some of those countries.
'First use' of nickel is defined as the conversion of nickel products into intermediate products, which form the basis for nickel-containing end-use products. In almost all cases, these first-use products undergo further processing before they are ready for use.
(Source: Wood Mackenzie, year of reference: 2021)
Due to its outstanding physical and mechanical properties, nickel is used in a wide range of end-use sectors.
(Source: Roskill, year of reference: 2022)
Socio-economic data on nickel show the importance of industries throughout the nickel value chain, from mining through end use to recycling. The data quantify important metrics, such as employment or value added. They also serve as the basis for modelling the positive and negative impacts of, for example, market developments or regulatory initiatives. In cooperation with Roskill, the Nickel Institute collects and updates socio-economic data for the main nickel producing and using countries.
In Europe, a socio-economic assessment was done for 12 of the most relevant economies where significant nickel production or use occurs. In these countries, the total value added by the nickel industry and its value chains is estimated to be €43 billion. In addition, the output generated by nickel and related industries is around €130 billion, implicating around 750,000 jobs which depend directly or indirectly on nickel (reference year 2017).
Globally, the nickel value chain supports large numbers of jobs, many of which are high skill manufacturing occupations.
Find out more about the socio-economic impact of nickel in the EU, USA and Canada using the interactive map below.
(Source: Roskill Pariser)
Society cares more and more about sustainability and needs to know more about the materials that contribute to a sustainable future. Nickel is one of those materials.
Nickel is an element. It cannot be created nor destroyed. Its attributes - corrosion resistance, high-temperature stability, strength, ductility, toughness, recyclability, as well as catalytic and electromagnetic properties help achieve sustainability. Nickel in its various forms is often unseen, yet it plays hundreds of roles in thousands of products and applications we use every day.
While its role is often hidden, nickel is an enabler of many technologies required for sustainability. Nickel contributes to the achievement of many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in lots of ways.
Responsible and sustainable production practices are a priority for Nickel Institute member companies. Responsible sourcing programs are being developed by upstream and downstream sectors aimed, in many cases, at ensuring that they do not contribute to human rights abuses or conflict. Many of these programs are based on the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High Risk Areas (OECD DDG).
The NI supports its members by building on existing frameworks and commitments, advocating for responsible sourcing tools and standards that are in line with internationally recognized standards for the responsible production and sourcing of minerals, such as the OECD Due Diligence Guidelines. The NI does not provide independent frameworks or tools, or operate an accreditation role or provide certification to companies. It remains the individual company’s responsibility to demonstrate responsible production and compliance with responsible sourcing programs.
Nickel is one of the elements that plays a critical enabling role in the energy transition required to reduce CO2 emissions
The pace of energy transition is increasing as green growth stimulus packages are introduced, and economies and companies alike commit to net carbon neutrality. The metals industry has a responsibility to support and facilitate the transition to a 'net-zero' low carbon economy.
Clean energy technologies generally require more metals than their fossil counterparts. And nickel, although unavoidably energy intensive to produce, has a critical role to play. Its unique properties are what make it a key part of the energy transition.
Nickel Institute Member companies have set ambitious targets and are implementing innovative responses to reduce their carbon footprint and ensure a sustainable future.
Actions are being taken by Nickel Institute Members at environmental, social and governance levels such as energy efficiency, reduction of air and water pollution emissions, land reclamation and reforestation, waste management, increased use of recycled metals ... as well as community initiatives, occupational health and safety measures and human rights strategies.
Collectively they give a flavour of an industry that is taking responsibility to ensure that critical nickel is available for the energy transition while minimizing its environmental impact.
Nickel is a natural resource, which cannot be consumed. Like many other metals, nickel is fully recyclable. It can be recycled again and again without loss of quality, contributing to the Circular Economy (CE) model.
As nickel-containing products have value, there is an infrastructure for gathering and processing them. Gathering, sorting, preparing, transporting and using scrap metal generates significant employment and adds economic value.