Nickel is a metal that formed in the earth’s crust during the supernova explosions. However, for long, this metal was mistaken as copper minerals and called “kupfernickel”, meaning bedeviled copper or the goblin metal. It was in 1751 that the Swedish scientist Cronstedt discovered that nickel is a distinct metal. The technology to extract nickel from its ore came still later, at the beginning of the 20th century.
Initially Nickel found use mainly to add steel for armor plating on battleships. However, with developments in science and technology, and the discovery of more and more properties of Nickel, virtually every industry started using Nickel in a wide variety of applications. Nickel is very resistant to corrosion, reacts with all acids except concentrated nitric acid, and alkali do not affect it. It is moreover a fair conductor of heat and electricity.
Nickel has good alloying ability, and due to this factor, almost alloys use up almost 85% of the available nickel. The presence of nickel mainly adds to the corrosion resistance and strength of the alloy. Today there are more than 3000 nickel-containing alloys in daily use. The most commercially important alloys are those of iron, nickel, and chromium, with the best-known alloy being stainless steel.
Nearly two-third of all nickel produced goes into stainless steel. The presence of nickel leads to the stability, toughness, and durability of stainless steel. Stainless steel finds many applications in food processing, manufacture of domestic kitchen equipment and utensils. Stainless steel also finds use in many architectural applications, transport, chemical processing, and energy industries.
Nickel’s resistance to corrosion is one of its most valuable properties, and the largest use of nickel alloys is to prevent corrosion. The estimated annual cost of corrosion in the U.S.A. alone is $300 billion, equivalent to 4% of gross national product. Nickel is essential to almost every alloy made to resist corrosion. Nickel’s ability to combat corrosion extends to marine environments, and desalination plants use a copper-nickel alloy.
Nickel has a high melting point, a face-centered cubic crystal structure, and is an adherent oxide. All these make Nickel heat resistant with even the hottest and most potent chemicals not able to make a dent on nickel. This makes nickel alloys essential materials in the chemical and aerospace industries. The ability of nickel alloy to operate at very high temperatures was instrumental in the success of the jet engine. A gas turbine’s use was never in doubt, but until nickel came along there was no strong enough material with which to build it.
Nickel, being resistant to heat does not expand when heated, and this finds use in making measuring tapes, clock pendulums, and other scientific instruments. This property of nickel also facilitates its use in packaging electronic chips, as shadow-masks in television tubes, and in the storage and transportation tanks of liquid natural gas.
Nickel fills the need for materials that can be quickly magnetize and demagnetize, for use in many electrical processes. It is possible to manufacture permanent magnets of high strength from nickel alloys. Again, it is also possible to make an alloy of nickel that is practically non-magnetic.
Nickel changes its shape when magnetized, and this property is instrumental for its use in constructing the Eco Depth Sounder, used to measure the depths of the oceans.
The soft magnetic properties of nickel and its alloys find use in electronic devices and for electromagnetic shielding of computers and communication equipment. Coins and tokens produced with tailored electromagnetic response aids identification in vending machines.
Nickel finds use in portable power provision as well. Nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries have been in use for several years. The new Nickel metal-hydride batteries improve their performance by absorbing large amounts of hydrogen, which in turn leads to improved performance from cordless power tools, portable computers and other mobile electronic equipment.
Electroplating with Nickel protects the soft metal inside, besides providing corrosion-resistance and a lustrous finish. Some of the applications where this is useful are automobile trim, bathroom fittings, electronic conductors, compact discs and security holograms, and screens for carpet printing.
It is possible to deposit Nickel from solution without using electric current. These ‘electroless’ nickel deposits are uniform in thickness and contain phosphorus, which provides superior wear and corrosion resistance. This finds a wide range of use as coatings, especially in many pump and valve applications.
‘Electroless’ nickel is also widely used in computer hard discs. It forms a uniform, smooth, stable, and non-magnetic substrate for the magnetic recording layer, besides providing corrosion protection for the underlying aluminum disc.
Nickel’s role as a catalyst in chemical processes is perhaps the least known of its uses. Finely divided nickel-based catalysts are important to several important reactions, including the hydrogenation of vegetable oils, the reforming of hydrocarbons, and the production of fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides.
The range of uses found for nickel can be gauzed from the fact that nickel has also become an essential dietary requirement for humans. Trace amounts of nickel helps in transport of oxygen in the blood and proper function of some enzymes. With the growing awareness of the importance of micro nutrients, several multi-vitamin producers now add nickel to their products in small quantities.
Many coins use Nickel. The US five-cent piece, known as a ‘nickel’ is actually a copper-nickel alloy, with 25% nickel and 75% copper.
To sum up, Nickel is a cost-effective, long-lasting material ideal for critical applications in tough environments. Nickel has found its way to several diverse items like watches, farming instruments, cars, bicycles, radio sets, taps, railway engines, and electric wires. It is because of Nickel that civilization has advanced to the extent we know it now, and it is certain that nickel will be contributing to our lives for many years to come.