You don’t have to be a miner or a metallurgist to know that demand for nickel is on the rise. Think back to the first digital cameras, when rechargeable batteries first entered our lives. Those nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries have the same composition as the ones that powered the first Toyota Prius hybrid cars and, today, nickel has only become more indispensable in electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, and several other next-generation technologies.
But how much do you know about nickel? Besides batteries, you probably use several items composed of nickel every day. Read on for five things that you may have never known about one of Zambia’s most valuable minerals.
1. Nickel was once known as ‘the devil’s copper’
In the fifteenth century, miners in the German state of Saxony discovered a brown-red ore, believing it contained copper. But, try as they might, they failed to extract any copper, and many of them fell ill with severe stomach pains, diarrhea, and other telltale signs of poisoning. Some suffered from vertigo, causing accidents and falls. Later, it was discovered that the high level of arsenic in the ore they’d found was to blame.
Frustrated, and in poor health, the miners dubbed the substance kupfernickel, which roughly translates as “the devil’s copper”.
Fast-forward a few hundred years to 1751, when a Swedish chemist named Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstedt heated the kupfernickel and immediately realised it wasn’t copper. He is credited with being the first person in the world to successfully extract what we now know as the element nickel (an abbreviation of kupfernickel).
2. Nickel’s in just about everything, including the kitchen sink!
Despite being one of the most versatile metals on earth — it’s tough, corrosion resistant, 100% recyclable, and has a high melting point of 1455ºC — few things are actually made from pure nickel. Even the United States’ five cent coin (known as ‘a nickel’) is only 25% nickel. The other 75% is copper!
According to the Nickel Institute, the majority of the world’s nickel (around 70%) is used for manufacturing corrosion-resistant alloys, like stainless steel. Another 18% is used to make other types of steel and non-ferrous “super” alloys, which are used for highly-specialized military, aerospace and industrial applications. The remaining 12% of nickel produced is currently used in other areas such as batteries (3%) and plating things like coins and electronic components (8%). Apart from lending its unique combination of corrosion and resistance to wear to certain products, the metal also adds a brightness and lustre because of its silvery-white appearance.
Few things are actually made from pure nickel. Even the United States’ five cent coin (known as ‘a nickel’) is only 25% nickel.
In modern kitchens, nickel is everywhere: in appliances, pots and pans, cutlery, taps, and utensils. Even domestic and industrial sinks are mostly made from nickel-containing stainless steel. It’s rust resistant, impervious to most cleaning chemicals, and is considered aesthetically pleasing. Stainless steel is also an obvious choice for manufacturing sinks because its resistance to deep scratches reduces the chance of microorganisms surviving in areas that detergents can’t reach, making it a very hygienic metal indeed.
3. Nickel is a ferromagnetic element
Nickel is one of only four ferromagnetic elements — the others being iron, cobalt, and gadolinium. That means it is both attracted to magnets and retains magnetic properties after the magnet has been removed. Ferromagnetic metals have a wide range of uses and are found in many day-to-day items. Generators, telephones, transformers, loudspeakers, electric motors, floppy discs, and even the magnetic strip on the back of your bank card all contain ferromagnetic materials.
Nickel is also the primary metal found in Mu-metal, a soft magnetic alloy that is used to shield sensitive electronic equipment against magnetic fields. In fact, Mu-metal is comprised of roughly 80% nickel and is found in computer hard drives, cathode-ray tube TVs, and electric power transformers.
4. Tutankhamun had an extraterrestrial nickel-packed knife
In 1925, the British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s completely intact burial tomb. Three years later, Carter found a pair of daggers in the teenage king’s burial wrappings. One of the weapons baffled scientists because it wasn’t rusted, and metalwork of that kind was very rare in ancient Egypt.
More than 90 years later, in 2016, Italian and Egyptian researchers used a technique known as portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (basically a non-invasive X-ray technique) to determine that the knife was made with iron that came from a meteorite — and that it contained a high percentage of nickel. In fact, it was the high levels of nickel that indicated the knife was made from meteoritic iron and, therefore, of extraterrestrial origin. Out of this world!
5. One solution to the rising demand for nickel lies below us
Given all the talk about rising demand for nickel, it may then come as a surprise that the mineral is the fifth most abundant element in the world. Only, most of it is located a lot further down in the earth than even the deepest mines can reach. As luck would have it, most of the earth’s nickel is found below the earth’s crust. In fact, it’s approximately 100 times more concentrated below the earth’s crust than within it. Inside the earth’s inner core, the only element that is more abundant than nickel is iron.
Amid all the buzz about electric vehicles and the move from fossil fuels to renewable energy, one thing is certain: nickel will play a central role in that transition. It would seem that mines like Munali Nickel Mine is southern Zambia may have timed their relaunch of operations perfectly. As the only operational nickel mine in the country, they are unlikely to have a shortage of buyers for their product.
The ancient Egyptians were quick to recognise nickel’s value and, although modern technology has taken a few centuries to catch up, today we are wasting no time in harnessing the mineral’s potential.