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The Nickel Market

Nickel price drivers

An introduction to nickel

Nickel demand and end-uses

Nickel forms an essential component in the cathodes of Li-ion batteries, delivering high energy density and greater storage capacity at a lower cost, thereby delivering a longer range for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and making them more competitive with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

Nickel has long been widely used in batteries, most commonly in nickel cadmium (NiCd) and in the longer-lasting nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries, which came to the fore in the 1980s. Nickel usage in batteries is set to increase as it forms an essential component in the cathodes of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries utilised in BEVs.

Nickel has outstanding physical and chemical properties. It has a melting point of 1,453°C, relatively low thermal and electrical conductivities, high resistance to corrosion and oxidation, excellent strength and toughness at elevated temperatures, and is capable of being magnetised. It is attractive and durable as a pure metal, and alloys readily with many other metals.

These qualities make it essential in hundreds of thousands of products. Its main use is in alloying, particularly with chromium and other metals to produce stainless and heat-resisting steels. The six main uses are stainless steel, batteries, Cu-Ni alloys, nickel alloys, plating and nickel compounds.

Usage of nickel has increased over time and is correlated with economic development. Nickel is contained in nearly two-thirds of stainless steel produced. Strong world economic growth until 2007 supported the rising production of primary nickel metal. Over the past 10 years, global nickel output has increased by more than 65%, while that of China has surged by a factor of 13.

Nickel supply and resources

Nickel is a lustrous, silvery-white metal discovered in 1751 and the fifth most common element found on Earth. It occurs in nature principally as oxides, sulphides and silicates. Nickel ores are found in two types of orebody – sulphidic and lateritic. However, polymetallic manganese-rich nodules containing nickel found on the seabed are potentially a resource many times larger than those located on land, with a grade varying from 1.25-1.5% Ni.

Ores of nickel are mined in approximately 20 countries on all continents and are smelted or refined in around 25 countries. Global mined nickel production is derived from ~30% sulphide ores, with the remainder coming from a mix of limonite and saprolite ores.

Globally, the bulk of historical production has been derived from sulphide ores as these are easier to process through conventional mining, smelting and refining, compared to laterite ores. Sulphide ores are typically derived from volcanic or hydrothermal processes and usually include copper and/or cobalt, and sometimes other precious metals such as gold, platinum or palladium (generally grouped as PGMs).

Laterite ores mined from surface targeting limonite (oxide ore) and saprolite minerals (silicate ore) are mined along the Asia-Pacific Rim. Saprolite-type ore, characterised by high magnesia and silica content, is treated by a pyrometallurgy process, while limonite-type ore is subjected to a hydrometallurgical process. Laterites contain 70% of global nickel resources but produce only around 40% of world production.

Primary nickel is produced and used as ferronickel, and in nickel oxides and other chemicals, and as almost pure nickel metal. Globally, over 2 mt of new or primary nickel is produced and used annually. Nickel is also readily recycled in many of its applications, and large tonnages of secondary or ‘scrap’ nickel are used to supplement newly mined metal.

The output of primary nickel production is generally divided into two main product categories: class 1 and class 2. Nickel class 1 is a group of nickel products comprising electrolytic nickel, powders and briquettes, as well as carbonyl nickel. Approximately 40% of primary nickel production was class 1 in 2019.

Nickel class 2 comprises nickel pig iron (NPI) and ferronickel. These nickel products commonly have a lower nickel content and are used in stainless steel production, where producers take advantage of the iron content. China began producing NPI in 2005 in different forms and grades, and this has replaced traditional products such as nickel metal and stainless-steel scrap in the manufacture of stainless steel in China and Indonesia.

Nickel market balance

 tonnes     2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021f
Primary nickel supply                
Regional                  
 Indonesia                  
 Philippines                  
 Russia                  
 New Caledonia                
 Canada                  
 Australia                  
 Rest of World                  
 Total nickel supply   2,140,275 2,130530 2,270,685 2,270,960 2,430,760 2,440,390 2,829,855
                   
Refined nickel supply                
 Indonesia NPI                  
 China NPI                  
 Ferronickel                  
 Class I (briquettes, cathodes, powder)               
 Other (primary NiSO4, utility nickel etc.)              
 Total refined nickel supply           2,315,180 2,443480 2,705,755
                   
Nickel demand and recycling
 Lithium-ion battery nickel demand              
  Battery electric vehicles (BEV)              
  Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV)              
  Full hybrid electric vehicles (FHEV)              
  Mild hybrid electric vehicles (MHEV)              
  Full cell electric vehicles (FCEV)              
  Heavy-duty electric vehicles (HDEV)              
  E-bikes                  
  Other battery (incl. non-lithium)                
  Total lithium-ion battery nickel demand 52,575 58,930 62,630 80,095 163,195 188,765 249,075
                 
 Other nickel demand                
  Stainless steel                
  Alloy steels                
  Non-ferrous alloys                
  Other nickel demand*                
  Total other nickel demand   2,532,000 2,778,355 2,957,270 3,013,095 3,121,905 2,995,660 3,571,715
                   
Gross nickel demand   2,584,575 2,837,285 3,019,895 3,093,190 3,285,095 3,184,430 3,820,790
                   
Nickel recycling   832,010 872,900 932,300 948,380 977,070 848,405 980,405
                   
Net nickel demand   1,752,565 1,964,390 2,087,595 2,144,805 2,308,025 2,336,025 2,840,385
                   
Nickel market balance              
 Nickel market balance (with mined supply) 387,710 166,145 183,090 126,155 122,730 104,370 -10,530
                 
 Nickel market balance (with refined supply)         7,155 107,460 -134,635
               
Nickel price history              
 Nickel price (LME, $/tonne)   9,597 10,414 13,110 13,917  13,804 17,450
 Nickel price (LME, $/lb)     4.35 4.72 5.95 6.31 6.26 7.92

 Nickel sulphate price (Shanghai incl. VAT, $/tonne)

3,523 3,740 4,166 4,060 4,126 5,235
 Mixed hydroxide product price
 (MHP, 80% LME, $/tonne)
  7,677 8,331 10,488 11,134 11,043 13,960
               

Source: SFA (Oxford). Updated July 2021. Note: *Other nickel demand includes plating and casting.

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