Today, producing nickel is a big, global industry dominated by three companies: Norilsk Nickel of Russia, Vale S.A. of Brazil and BHP Billiton of the U.K. and Australia. In 2009, an estimated 1,300 kilotonnes of the devil’s metal were produced by a handful of companies with mines in many different countries. Norilsk accounted for 282.9 kilotonnes, or about 22% of total global production.
No other company comes close. Brazil’s Vale S.A., which now owns most of Canada’s nickel production, was second at 187 kilotonnes in 2009, or about 14% of total world output. Another company with operations in Canada is Xstrata Nickel. It produced 88.6 kilotonnes in 2009 (about 7% of the total) and Canada’s Sherritt International, which produces nickel from mines in Cuba, reported 2009 production of 16.8 kilotonnes.
The Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton, produced 180.5 kilotonnes in 2009 (about 14%).
Much, or about 425 kilotonnes (33%) of nickel produced in the world today, goes to meet growing demand in the booming economy of China. Much of that demand is for stainless steel which is used in a multitude of manufacturing industries.
One hundred years ago, the nickel industry was vastly smaller with total production of just 10 kilotonnes. Most of that metal was used to make tough nickel steel for making battleships. In 1910, the nickel industry was dominated by producers in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Since nickel production began in Canada (in 1886) to the present day, about 13,000 kilotonnes of nickel have been extracted from the Precambrian Shield. That’s about 35% of the estimated 35,000 kilotonnes of nickel that have ever been mined. Most of Canada's output has been exported to stainless steel and nickel alloy producers in the U.S. and U.K.
The following article was published in the October 1, 1910 edition of The Canadian Mining Journal (on pages 589 and 590). The article was originally published anonymously in the Engineering Supplement of the London Times. All of photos used here to illustrate the article are from "Royal Ontario Nickel Commission Report and Appendix, 1917." To give a true feeling of the year 1910, I have not corrected the English grammar in the article. Also, comments, which appear in square brackets throughout the piece are mine - Patrick Whiteway.
The world’s production of nickel, which showed a marked increase during the years subsequent to 1900, has for the last few years remained fairly constant. The demand has been steady, but there seems very little doubt that it would have been much greater had the metal been obtainable at a slightly lower price. The price has been high chiefly through the instrumentality of the International Nickel Company, which has controlled prices in America and has succeeded in influencing outside markets as well.
[It’s interesting to note how freely the author addresses the price of nickel; how it affects demand and how one producer controls the price of nickel. The author seems to be suggesting that nickel producers should lower their prices in order to increase demand for their product. Such a suggestion would not be made today. If it were, it would be considered highly inappropriate and would likely lead to an antitrust investigation and hefty fines. Today, the nickel industry goes to great lengths to be seen NOT to be colluding and fixing the price of nickel. Prices are, after all, determined by the market forces of supply and demand.]
Creighton No. 3 Shaft, Sudbury, Ontario. (Royal Ontario Nickel Commission Report and Appendix, 1917)
The properties of nickel in itself are such that it will always command a wide sphere of utility. Its resistance to the attack of alkalis, the difficulty with which it is corroded by most acids, its durability, and the high polish it is capable of taking place it high amongst the commoner metals. It is these properties which have led to the adoption for such purposes as field and ship cooking utensils and for replacing copper as coinage, while it has long been used for electro-plating, and in this respect is little inferior to silver, while obtainable at a much smaller cost.
[Here, the author identifies the key properties that make nickel useful and speculates on future applications. The properties of nickel mentioned are still exploited to this day, however, there are additional properties of nickel and nickel-containing materials, such as magnetism and a low coefficient of thermal expansion of certain alloys, which have since come to light and have been used in many new applications since 1909.]
Copper Cliff Smelter, Sudbury, Ontario. (Royal Ontario Nickel Commission Report and Appendix, 1917)
Nickel will alloy with most of the useful metals. Among such alloys the so-called German silver, which consists essentially of nickel, copper and zinc, is most widely known. The most valuable properties of German silver are its white colour, its brilliant luster, hardness, tenacity, toughness, malleability, ductility, and power of resistance to many chemical influences. The presence of cobalt does not seem to interfere with these properties. A new alloy known as monel metal, which consists of one part copper and three parts nickel, with a small amount of incidental impurities, has many excellent properties, chief of which is its great resistance to the attack of acids.
[This was written a decade before the discovery of iron-chromium-nickel stainless steels – the largest single use of nickel today. In addition, there are hundreds of nickel alloys and nickel stainless steels and more being formulated every year to meet exacting operating conditions. What the property 'tenacity' is, in an engineering sense, I don’t know.]
It is the combination known as nickel steel, however, which utilizes most of the nickel mined at the present day. Nickel steel is principally used for armour plates, but the toughness of this alloy or mixture renders it also applicable for other purposes. Recent tests have shown its utility for rails and for rivets and it has been adopted for the barrels of small arms. The presence of nickel, up to 20 per cent, in steel increases the elastic limit and breaking stress, and steels rich in nickel are practically non-corrodible. Alloys have been made containing a high percentage of nickel, but it has been found that for general purposes, taking into account the relatively high price of the metal (at present about L160 a ton), the best result is obtained with the greatest economy when it is present to the extent of about 2 per cent.
[One interesting application of nickel steel employed at about this time was in the construction of a bridge over the St. Lawrence River at Quebec City. For details, see an article in Nickel Magazine at: www.nickelmagazine.org/index.cfm?ci_id=10135&la_id=1 ]
Blast furnace tipping floor, Copper Cliff Smelter, Sudbury, Ontario. (Royal Ontario Nickel Commission Report and Appendix, 1917)
Until quite recently the entire nickel supply of the world was obtained either from the Sudbury district of Ontario, Canada, or from the ores of New Caledonia. The other sources are still insignificant compared to these, but there is a possibility of great developments in the near future.
[This is fascinating because the author could foresee significant growth in nickel supply and demand. Nickel today is mined in many parts of the world, including Russia, Cuba, Columbia, Finland, Australia and Indonesia; a diversity of supply which demonstrates the phenomenal growth in demand of the metal over the last 100 years.]
Levack Mine, Sudbury, Ontario. (Royal Ontario Nickel Commission Report and Appendix, 1917)
About 60 per cent of the world’s nickel supply is mined at the present time in the Sudbury district. As early as 1770 Canada’s deposits in Algoma, which borders on Sudbury, were worked as a source of copper, but the true nature of the deposits was not recognized till in recent times the officers of the Canadian Geological Survey pointed out that they would probably be workable. The Sudbury deposits first attracted notice in 1883, during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and in 1886 they were first exploited for nickel. The ore in this district is mined and treated by two companies – the Canadian Copper Company and the Mond Nickel Company. A new company, the Diamond Nickel Copper Company, has started operations in the Northern range. The ore of the Canadian Copper Company is chiefly raised from the Creighton mine, which is rich in nickel, while the Mond Nickel Company obtains its supply principally from the Victoria mines.
Victoria Mine, Sudbury, Ontario. (Royal Ontario Nickel Commission Report and Appendix, 1917)
The ore is smelted into a matte by the Bessemer process, and this matte which contains about 40 per cent of nickel and a bout the same amount of copper, is then shipped for the production of pure nickel, by the former to Constable Hook, Nova Scotia and other places, and by the latter to South Wales. The ores from the Cobalt district, worked for their high silver content, give the only other supply from Canada, but in this case the metal is only a by-product, and the nickel content is not reconed with in the sales. There are indications of workable deposits further north in Canada. Returns for the nickel industry of Ontario in 1908 give the following figures: Ore raised, 409,551 short tons; ore smelted, 360,180 tons; Bessemer matte produced, 21,197 tons; nickel contents, 9,572 tons; copper contents, 7,503 tons. The ore also contains considerable amounts of silver, palladium, platinum and gold.
[In 2009, nickel produced from mines in the Sudbury Basin, according to the production reports of Vale Inco and Xstrata Nickel, was about 55,000 tonnes. This figure, which is low compared with 2008 because of a strike at Vale Inco, represents about 5% of total global nickel production. ]
Garson mine, Sudbury area, Ontario, September 9, 1916 (Royal Ontario Nickel Commission Report and Appendix, 1917)
All the ore in New Caledonia is exported to France, Great Britain and Germany for smelting, although plans have often been discussed for treating the ore on the island. In Great Britain the ore is treated by the Glasgow Nickel Company at Kirkintilloch. The approximate output of nickel ores from New Caledonia during the year 1909 was 120,000 tons.
There are now two other countries which produce nickel. In Norway it is worked in the valley of Sotersdalen, not far from Christiansund. The output in 1908 was only 81 tons, but has now probably much increased. Nickel was produced in the United States for the first time from its own ores in 1908, by the North American Lead Company, but the production was small. The Oreford Copper Company and the Balbach Refining Company refine nickel, but obtain their supplies from the Bessemerized matte from Sudbury or from other sources. A deposit of ore somewhat resembling the Sudbury ore has been found in Nevada, but has not been worked. Particulars of a recent development at Webster, Jackson County, North Carolina, were given lately. Dr. Hennig hs worked out a process for direct reduction in the electric furnace of a nickel silicate ore found there. A product consisting of silicides of nickel and iron with some chromium, aluminium, magnesium and a little carbon is obtained, which can be applied directly to the manufacture of nickel steel. The production of ferro-nickel, nickel alloys, and metallic nickel is also contemplated.
[This is interesting because Norwegian nickel mines supplied the German war effort in both the first and second world wars. Also, today, the nickel refinery at Kristiansund, Norway, is still in operation. Its present owner is Xstrata Nickel.]
Worthington Mine, Sudbury, Onatrio. (Royal Ontario Nickel Commission Report and Appendix, 1917)
For refining nickel, or obtaining the metal from a nickel-copper matte, various processes have been adopted. The preparation of nickel oxide and direct chemical reduction gives an impure product as a rule. Formerly commercial nickel only contained about 94 per cent. of the metal, but in the last few years the commercial metal has greatly risen in purity. An analysis of one of the best makes of nickel would give figures of the following order: Nickel 99.1 per cent.; cobalt, 0.4 per cent.; iron, 0.3 per cent.; carbon, 0.05 per cent.; manganese, 0.05 per cent.; silicon, 0.10 per cent. These figures, and the nature of the elements present as impurities, of course vary according to the nature of the ore and the methods adopted in refining it. In the United States, since 1894, electrolytic methods have been largely employed. Copper is deposited apart from the nickel in the actual electrolysis. Nickel is almost invariably deposited from solutions which have been made alkaline by the addition of ammonia, copper having been eliminated in the previous operation. In Germany, at the Papenburg works of the Aligemeine Electro-Metallurgische Gesellschaft, an electrolytic process known as the Hoepfner process has been adopted. In America the chief processes which have been tried or adopted are the Thum process at the Balbach Company’s works, Newark, the process of the Orford Copper Company at Baylnne, New Jersey; the Brown process at Cleveland, Ohio, by the Canadian Copper Company, and the Hybinette process at Sault Ste. Marie.
[The plethora of metallurgical processes used to recover nickel is fascinating. Today, these methods can be classified as either pyrometallurgical or hydrometallurgical processes.]
Murray Mine, Sudbury, Ontario. (Royal Ontario Nickel Commission Report and Appendix, 1917)
The process adopted by the Mond Nickel Company at their Clydach works in South Wales is unique not only in the manufacture of nickel, but in the whole domain of metallurgy. The method adopted gives nickel of a very high degree of purity, seldom less than 99.9 per cent., the small trace of foreign elements left being carbon and iron. The Mond process depends on the formation of an easily volatile compound formed by the action of carbon monoxide gas on finely-divided nickel. This compound, known as nickel carbonyl, is easily decomposed by heat, leaving pure nickel, with the evolution of carbon monoxide, which is used again to act on further impure metal. The discovery of the formation of this compound, which was originally accidental, led to a patent being taken out in 1890 by the late Dr. Ludwig Mond for refining nickel, but it was not until 10 years later that it was used on the commercial scale. Since no other element present under ordinary conditions, with the exception of iron to a very limited extent, forms a carbonyl, the nickel is free from other metals, and especially from cobalt, which is separated only with extreme difficulty in other methods of refining. The metal appears on the market in the form of pellets varying in size up to 5-16-inch in diameter. The works at present turn out about 1,800 tons of nickel a year, but are being much enlarged.
[Nickel carbonyl is known today to be highly toxic. If you breath it into your lungs it will kill you.]
The future production of nickel, at any rate in so far as it will be used for the manufacture of nickel steel, will, it seems, lie in the formation of ferro-nickel by direct reduction in the electric furnace, and with cheap electric power, and by working possibly some of the sources of nickel not yet tapped, it seems probable that the price may be considerably reduced.
[Again, the author does what legally cannot be done today – alluding to price-fixing or collusion among producers.]
But in such a complicated problem as in afforded by the addition of various alloys of steel, it is difficult to see what the future may have in store. There are indications that vanadium and chromium, if the former can be obtained sufficiently cheaply, may replace the use of nickel; but, whether or not it is superseded as a toughening addition to steel, the fact remains that pure nickel, by reason of its excellent properties as a metal, must always find its uses, and the extent to which it is employed will depend on its cost.
[Again, the author takes a parting shot at the producers of nickel , prodding them to reduce their prices. The speculative comment about the possibility of vanadium replacing nickel in steel making did not bear out over time, probably because vanadium is more rare than nickel and therefore commands a higher price than nickel. It is interesting to note that what is not even mentioned in this summary of the nickel industry one hundred years ago are the issues that so much impact the industry today: human health, the impact that the industry has on the natural environment and the social responsibilities of the corporations that carry out the mining of nickel. These issues are of paramount importance to the nickel industry today.]
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