Is it time to recycle more nickel?
Written by Dr Tim Johnson
Now you might think me a little sad, but I have to confess that as a metallurgist, I always find it interesting just how closely the history of mankind is linked to advances in metal working. The first evidence of metal working in Europe dates from around 5500 BC with the extraction of copper, lead and precious metals and this was followed by the working of bronze from around 4000 BC, both of which mark key points in the emergence of modern civilisation more generally.
The growing use of new techniques to extract iron from its ores in around 1200 BC then marked the transition to the iron age, a period of time that only came to an official end in around 600 BC as pre-history transitioned to history with the widespread use of writing. Rather later on, the industrial revolution was largely triggered by the advent of improved cast iron production methods in the early 18th Century, whilst the rapid industrial expansion of the Victorian period was only made possible by the cheap and plentiful supplies of steel provided by Bessemer’s converter. It could also be argued that the expansion of air travel and the more recent digital revolution in the 20th Century owe debts of gratitude to revolutions in the production of alloys based on aluminium and silicon respectively.
One result of this metallurgist’s view of history is that metals tend to have a kind of historical pecking order, from the venerable metals of antiquity, such gold, silver, copper, lead and tin, through to the ‘classical’ iron, the steels of the modern age and those upstart ‘new’ metals – aluminium, silicon, stainless steel, rare earth magnets and so forth.
However, there are some metals that eschew such clear distinctions and perhaps the stand out one of these is nickel. Along with its close cousin cobalt, it was only recognised as a distinct metal in the 18th Century and both were named after mythical sprites and goblins of the mountains. However, it turns out nickel was also used inadvertently in antiquity alongside copper to make bronze from almost the beginning of the bronze age. So, it would seem this mischievous sprite of a metal has been hiding in the shadows of mankind’s history, long before being forced to emerge into the daylight as one of the most important metals of the 20th and 21st Centuries.
One of these metals is Nickel, which now reaches into many areas of our lives and whilst it is mostly used to produce stainless steel, it is also used in many other applications, including rechargeable batteries, coins, a coating material and as a basis for many catalysts. In fact, the use of nickel as a catalyst was first discovered as far back as 1897 and although it was displaced somewhat by the use of platinum in the mid-20th Century, it is becoming more important again as a lower-cost alternative in several important reactions, including the hydrogenation of vegetable oils, reforming of hydrocarbons, and the production of fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. As well as increasing stainless steel production, the growing electric vehicle market will support long-term nickel demand. It is projected that electric car production will increase three-fold from 2015 to 2020 and these cars could potentially use nickel-metal hydride batteries as an alternative to lithium ion batteries.
Consequently, the demand for nickel across the whole range of applications has been increasing by around 5% per year since 2010 and looks set to continue this trend, significantly faster in fact than during the huge boom in nickel prices in the years leading up to the crash in metal prices in late 2007. When China’s manufacturing sector was booming, demand for nickel soared and nickel prices took off. High prices and high demand gave nickel mines a good reason to produce more. However, when the global economic crisis hit in 2008, supply outstripped demand and prices have collapsed to a level last seen in 2004.
But now, together with the growing demand, we see a shortfall in production. For example, lower output from the Philippines caused the global supply of mined nickel to fall by 5.3% during the first five months of 2016. Added to which, the enforced closure of a number of the country’s mines is forecast to cut its production capacity still further. Indeed, all nickel mining companies face a combination of persistent low metal prices and declining quality of ore. It is extraordinary to think that back in 1880, ores commonly contained over 10% nickel, whereas by 2010 ‘good quality’ ores were down to only 1% to 2% nickel.
So, with declining ore quality, falling mining output and growing demand, is it time to recycle more nickel? We think so.
Is it time to recycle more nickel…we think so!
Over the years, Tetronics’ DC plasma smelting technology has proved itself to be very adept at extracting nickel and other key metals such as chromium and molybdenum from dusts generated in the melting and production of stainless steel. Plants in Italy and the North of England have been processing these wastes for nearly 25 years, providing a source of these valuable metals back to their adjacent steel plants in place of metals extracted from mining operations. And for the last 10 years or so, Tetronics’ plasma smelting plants have been used for extracting precious metals from industrial catalysts and catalytic converters.
As the use of nickel as a catalyst in chemical processes is expanding, so these two strands of Tetronics’ experience have come together to produce a growing interest in the recovery of nickel from petrochemical catalysts. Whilst other major sources of nickel wastes, such as scrap stainless steel, are ideal for recycling directly back to the steel industry, petrochemical catalysts are both less plentiful and less-suited to this well established recovery route. Meanwhile, other methods (often based on various types of wet chemistry) also have significant drawbacks, such as poor recovery rates or the generation of large quantities of other wastes. Instead, the highly compact, environmentally friendly and efficient nature of Tetronics’ DC plasma smelting plants makes them an obvious choice for this increasingly important niche secondary source of nickel.
So, as the world looks for new environmentally-friendly methods to satisfy the growing demand for nickel, here at Tetronics we feel plasma is the right technology at the right time.