Nickel is one of the world’s most heavily utilised metals, and is commonly found in domestic and commercial settings. Few people will perhaps realise just how widespread nickel usage is though as nickel is primarily used as an alloy, meaning it is often used in conjunction with another metal.
The usage of nickel, in combination with other metals, has been traced back as far as 3500BC, but widespread usage only commenced in the second half of the eighteenth century. In 1751 Axel Fredrik Cronstedt was able to isolate nickel as a separate metal and soon its properties were quickly recognised as being important. These properties include its corrosion resistance, and its maintenance of its physical properties at extreme temperatures.
Today about 1.7m tonnes of nickel are produced each year; nickel being extracted from limonite, garnierite and pentlandite ores. Wide scale production is undertaken in Canada, Russia, New Caledonia and Australia. Demand for nickel is increasing at about 4% per year as usage of the metal increases.
Most people when they think of nickel usage will think of the minting of coins; after all the US five cent piece is referred to as the nickel. The usage of nickel in coin minting though is decreasing, and the five cent piece, at 25% nickel content, is one of the few coins using nickel as a core material rather than as plating. Nickel is an increasingly expensive metal, too expensive for coins, considering the fact that it costs twice as much to mint a five cent piece than its face value.
With usage in coins decreasing, the use of nickel is increasing rapidly in other areas, especially in the production of alloys.
Shortly after its isolation though, it was discovered that nickel was an ideal metal to use in the steel making process. Even tiny amounts of the metal vastly improved the strength of steel, and ensured that it would corrode less quickly.
Other alloys of nickel include Permalloy (80%nickel/20%iron) used widely in electronic equipment; Supermalloy (79%nickel/16%iron/5%molybdenum) is used in radio engineering; and Nichrome (80%nickel/20%chromium) as resistance wiring. Alnico is another famous alloy of nickel, made from nickel, aluminium and cobalt and is used as in extremely strong magnets.
Nickel is now used in three thousand alloys and super alloys, making up 90% of all nickel usage, with 60% going into steel manufacturing.
Some 6% of all nickel also goes into pure-nickel plating, whilst relatively small amounts of nickel are also used in the manufacturing of some rechargeable batteries, the colouring of glass and electric guitar strings.