by Chris Woodford. Last updated: November 3, 2019.
Nickels and dimes—think of nickel and you probably think of coins jangling about in your pocket or, if you're electrically minded, of rechargeable batteries. Those are just two of many common uses for nickel, one of the quieter, more modest metals. It's not big and showy, like gold and silver, and it's less well-appreciated than hi-tech aerospace metals such as aluminum and titanium (even though it has important applications in those fields too). Let's take a closer look at this unassuming element and find out more!
Photo: Nickel is widely used in high-temperature "superalloys" to make such things as this aerospace turbine blade. Photo by courtesy of NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA-GRC).
What is nickel?
Photo: Another example of a nickel superalloy turbine blade. Read more about why nickel is used in turbine blade metallurgy.
Nickel has featured in alloys (such as cupronickel, used in coins) for thousands of years, but it was recognized as a chemical element in its own right only in 1751. That was when Swedish chemist Baron Axel Frederic Cronstedt (1722–65) first isolated pure nickel from a reddish ore (mineral-containing rock) called niccolite. Niccolite got its name because it superficially resembled copper ore, though contained no actual copper. Miners who tried to extract it blamed "Old Nick" (the devil) for stealing the copper—and the name stuck. These days, you'll find nickel among the transition elements (transition metals) in group 10 (formerly group VIIIb) of the periodic table. It's very like iron in some ways and very like copper in others—hardly surprising, perhaps, given that it sits midway between them in the periodic table.
Where does nickel come from?
Chart: Where is the world's nickel? Estimated world nickel reserves as of 2019. Source: U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries: Nickel, February 2019. (New Caledonia's reserves, not published in 2018 or 2019, are based on a figure quoted in the 2017 Mineral Commodity Summaries.)
You might think nickel is fairly ordinary, but some of it is out of this world—quite literally. Most of the meteorites that hit Earth contain nickel (if you find a rock and it contains more than about five percent nickel, it's probably a meteorite). Nickel is a reasonably common metal: the 22nd most widespread element in Earth's crust (roughly twice as common as copper), which contains roughly 75 parts per million (0.0075 percent) nickel.
Most of the nickel we use on Earth is mined from a number of nickel ores: pentlandite and pyrrhotite (iron nickel sulfides, the two most important nickel ores), garnierite (hydrous nickel silicate), millerite (nickel sulfide), and niccolite (nickel arsenide).
The leading nickel producers are Indonesia, Philippines, Canada, and New Caledonia (together responsible for mining over half the world's nickel), followed by Australia and Russia; the United States currently has no active nickel mines but does produce a relatively small amount of nickel (23,000 tons—about 1/10 as much as Canada) as a byproduct from copper and palladium-platinum mines. The world has at least 130 million tons of nickel reserves on land, with much more believed to be available on the ocean floor (US Geological Survey, 2018).
Like some other metals, nickel can be extracted from its ores with the help of smelting (heating in a blast furnace), electrolysis (where the ore is split into its constituents by passing an electric current through a solution), or by reacting it with acids (in the Mond process).
What is nickel like?
Photo: A US Navy technician welds a copper-nickel pipe onboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. The greenish-blue flame is characteristic of both copper and nickel. Photo by Adam York courtesy of US Navy.