Opportunity knocks for nickel

Nickel’s role in enabling technologies is not always common knowledge. Yet its versatile properties present great opportunity for the nickel industry.

Mega-trends associated with population growth and the need for ‘more of everything’ are driving the opportunity for nickel. With rapid urbanisation, and massive migrations of people, particularly in Asia, demand is rising for more housing, more energy and transport, more food and more clean water – all of which have to be delivered in sustainable ways. And the properties of nickel are excellent for assisting with these needs.

Opportunities…and threats

But the nickel sector also faces headwinds in reaching its true potential.  The environment in which specification occurs is evolving, and like all topics, even discussions on social media play a role. Nickel also faces competition. It can be substituted for other materials and faces barriers to entry while standards and approvals are developing. Often specifiers are unaware of the benefits of nickel-containing materials. And in some cases, there is a need to establish a supply chain for innovative nickel-containing applications.

Nickel Institute workshop for architects and engineers, Singapore
Nickel Institute workshop for architects and engineers, Singapore

Educating future engineers

So how does the industry tackle perceptions of high cost and a lack of knowledge about the metal, even though it is used everywhere? Targeting new, young engineers coming through industry who are unaware of nickel’s potential is one way.

The Nickel Institute is particularly focused on marketing and education in China, India and South East Asia in an effort to change preconceptions and elevate nickel in the ‘head space’ of those designing and manufacturing new applications. 

Last year, our team of experts delivered dozens of workshops reaching thousands of engineers and specifiers. The Institute also offers a technical inquiry help service in English and Chinese which receives hundreds of technical questions annually, answered free of charge by a team of specialists. The goal is to give users and specifiers confidence in working with and specifying nickel and nickel-containing materials like stainless steel and other corrosion resistant alloys.

High potential applications

Three current focus areas with high potential for nickel are water distribution systems, marine scrubbers and batteries. All are driven by society’s need to combat climate change and save scarce resources.

Water distribution

Water authorities and cities across the world are focusing on reducing water loss. Urbanisation in developing countries requiring new infrastructure, coupled with the need to replace aging infrastructure in older cities is providing the opportunity for nickel-containing stainless steel.  

Tokyo reduced leakage rate from 15.3% in 1980 to 2.2% in 2013
Tokyo reduced leakage rate from 15.3% in 1980 to 2.2% in 2013

The Nickel Institute has thrown its weight behind an innovative partially corrugated water tube (PCWT) solution. The technology has had excellent results over the past thirty years in Tokyo, where between 1980 and 2013 the leakage rate has fallen from 15.3% to 2.2%. 

The Nickel Institute along with its partners is now demonstrating the benefits of nickel-containing stainless steel PCWT to water authorities across the globe – in Australia, Asia, North America and Europe. This is a technology whose time has come. PCWT provides a durable, safe water distribution system at a competitive cost. The potential to reduce water leakage, especially in seismic and water-stressed areas is significant, clearly helping to solve one of society’s most pressing problems. 

Partially Corrugated Water Tube  Image: Philippe de Putter for the ISSF
Partially Corrugated Water Tube Image: Philippe de Putter for the ISSF

Marine scrubbers

Marine scrubbers are another timely application for nickel. Environmental regulations are changing and driving the increased use of nickel-containing materials in scrubbers for marine engines. New limits for sulphur oxide emissions mandated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) came into effect on January 1, 2020. To meet the IMO 2020 regulations ship owners can opt to switch to more expensive low sulphur fuel or fit an exhaust gas scrubber system. With the scrubber option, ships can continue to use cheaper, high-sulphur fuel.

The inside of a scrubber is an extraordinarily harsh environment where a hot acidic chloride-rich solution circulates, requiring the use of highly corrosion-resistant nickel-containing alloys containing up to around 30-50% nickel. If less robust materials are specified for scrubbers, the risk of failure is high. And failure has potentially severe consequences for ship owners who risk punitive measures and loss of vessel operation while repairs are made. The Nickel Institute is working to provide sound technical information so that good procurement decisions can be made ensuring efficient operation of shipping.

Marine scrubber Photo: MEYER WERFT/Ingrid Fiebak-Kremer
Marine scrubber Photo: MEYER WERFT/Ingrid Fiebak-Kremer

The battery revolution

And what about batteries? The transition to battery power and battery energy storage for electric vehicles and renewable energy is well underway across the world. In recent years nickel metal hydride and nickel cadmium batteries have been overshadowed in the public mind by ‘lithium’. It is poorly understood, but nickel is central to the revolutionary success of the dominant lithium chemistries in modern energy storage. How many people know that nickel is the principal ingredient in the most energy dense lithium-ion batteries on the market today?  With these batteries containing up to 80% nickel, this energy transition mega-trend represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for nickel.

New and traditional opportunities

While batteries, scrubbers and water pipes are examples of new opportunities for nickel, the traditional end use markets are continuing. Nickel is buoyant, its annual use has grown between 6% and 7% per year over the past decade. The opportunity is there.


World nickel production Source:INSG
World nickel production Source:INSG