The journey of nickel

posted: 21/02/2022

Nickel is a part of our everyday lives, and a metal that we will increasingly need for a sustainable future. It is all around us, from the utensils we use in our kitchens to the bridges that connect our cities and the batteries of electric vehicles that will help to enable a low-carbon future. Yet many people do not even notice its presence because it is a ‘hidden’ metal. Let us explore the extraordinary journey of nickel.

Nickel (Ni) is a naturally occurring element that makes up a large part of the Earth’s core. Tectonic movements allow magma to rise to the surface, depositing nickel in igneous rock formations within its crust. It is also commonly found in meteorites, with ancient impact craters often providing nickel deposits on Earth.

At Glencore’s Integrated Nickel Operations (INO) across Canada and Norway, the journey of nickel sees the metal travel from deep within the permafrost of northern Quebec, through Sudbury, Ontario and on to Kristiansand in Norway, and from there to customers all over the world. 

But nickel’s journey is also symbolic; from a metal traditionally used to manufacture stainless steel, to one that is now regarded as critical for the transition to a low-carbon economy. And through its virtually endless recyclability, it is also driving the transformation to a truly circular economy.

Glencore’s Raglan Mine, an operation with four underground mines and concentrator, is situated in Quebec’s Nunavik region – 80km south of the Arctic Ocean.

The mining complex, many of whose employees are from the local Inuit communities, is one of the most isolated in Canada, challenged by Arctic conditions and off-grid with no access to public utilities or services. For its team of nearly 1,300 to operate, it had to build the equivalent of a small municipality with all the essential infrastructure required; lodging for employees, a water treatment plant, a power generating station and an airfield.

For Trevor Blair, Senior Supervisor, Strategic Planning & Business Development at Raglan Mine, the remoteness of the location is one of the most challenging factors on the journey to nickel.

I think the first thing that hits people is the absolutely desolate nature of Raglan. There's nothing around, it's above the tree line, we are in permafrost, and the rocks below to a depth of around 450 meters are frozen all the time.

Trevor Blair - Senior Supervisor, Strategic Planning & Business Development at Raglan Mine

To mine nickel, the team at Raglan starts from a surface portal using a ramp to get underground to where the ore body is located. It is drilled out of the rock and trucked up to the surface where it is fed into a crusher to break it down to the required size before being fed into a concentrator, where the rock is crushed into even smaller pieces. 

Afterwards, the crushed ore undergoes a flotation process, a method used to separate and concentrate ores based on whether their surfaces are repelled by, or attracted to, water. It is one of the most widely used processes for extracting minerals like nickel from their ore – the natural rock or sediment that contains them. At the end of the flotation process, the nickel sulphides can be skimmed off and dried.

Now at around 18% nickel, the concentrate is driven to Deception Bay, around 100km north of the mine. There it is loaded onto the Arvik I, a dedicated icebreaking bulk carrier ship, which transports it to the Port of Quebec. From there it is transported by rail to the smelter at Glencore’s Sudbury INO. During the smelting process, sulphur and other impurities are removed from the nickel concentrate.

Sari Muinonen, Process Technology and Custom Feed Manager, has worked at the Sudbury smelter since 2010. 

We have a furnace that operates at about 1,380 degrees Celsius. The material gets dropped into the top, falls through and hits the bath and that's when the smelting process begins. Our final product that we generate is called matte – it looks like a black beach sand and is now about 60% nickel.

Sari Muinonen - Process Technology and Custom Feed Manager, Sudbury smelter

From Sudbury, the matte is transported by rail back to the Port of Quebec where it is once again loaded onto another ship, this time to be refined into high-grade metal at the Nikkelverk refinery in Kristiansand, Norway – over 5,500km away from the beginning of its journey. 

The refining process begins by grinding the raw material into a fine powder and then transporting it to the chlorine leach plant. Here the metals in the raw material are separated by the addition of chlorine in hydrochloric acid. The separated streams are then sent to different processing areas for purification and refining. These various areas treat gaseous, liquid, and solid materials until, after about a week, the 99.99% pure nickel can be harvested.

Glencore is a leading producer and marketer of nickel, with operations not just in Canada and Europe, but also in Australia and New Caledonia in the South Pacific. In 2021, we produced 102kt of the metal from our own assets, while our marketing business sold 202kt. We produce some of the world’s purest nickel, and we are also one of the largest recyclers and processors of nickel-bearing materials, including batteries.

Our marketing business deals in nickel metal as well as concentrates, intermediates and ferronickel and our customers are a broad base of industrial consumers, in sectors such as automotive and power generation. 

Nickel is mainly used to make stainless steel because it adds strength and corrosion resistance to the steel. However, one other characteristic that makes nickel a truly unique and sustainable metal is that it is fully recyclable: “You cannot destroy nickel. You can produce different forms of it, but in the end you can always get nickel out of that product. It comes back into the economy and it’s circular.” 

Whether it’s through recycling or through mining in areas where we help to support communities, the idea is always that we produce nickel in a sustainable, responsible fashion.

Other valuable properties include its ability to be disinfected, its resistance to corrosion, its electrical and magnetic properties, and its strength at both high and low temperatures. Its ability to handle high temperatures means that it features in specialty steels and superalloys, used in jet engines for example, while today’s personal electronics depend on nickel to connect their chips and processors with just the right amount of power. 

More than anything else though, it is because of nickel’s use in clean energy and mobility technologies that its role in our lives will grow.

To provide wind power, for instance, nickel is required not just in the stainless steel alloys that are used to manufacture wind turbines, but to increase the strength and toughness of low alloy steels. In fact, the two turbines supplying wind power to Raglan Mine itself each use two tonnes of the metal. Similarly, stainless steel is used to make the turbines of hydro-electric power systems due to the anti-corrosive properties of the nickel ‘hidden’ inside.

Perhaps more directly relatable to everyday life is the increasing need for nickel as the major component of electric vehicle batteries. The metal serves to deliver higher energy density, resulting in greater storage capacity. With nickel-containing lithium-ion batteries set to power electric vehicles for the foreseeable future, and many millions of such vehicles set to hit the roads in the coming decades, the demand for nickel is forecast to soar.

Across our business, we are prioritising investment in metals – such as nickel – that support the low-carbon transition, and two of our key expansionary capital projects are testament to this. Through the Raglan Phase 2 programme we are developing two new ore zones, ensuring that the mine can sustain its continuous delivery of nickel concentrate.

The future of nickel is bright. I see it as an element of change not only to build emerging economies, assets and infrastructure, but also to be able to connect the world.

Trevor Blair - Senior Supervisor, Strategic Planning & Business Development at Raglan Mine

The ore zones will have a steady-state production capacity of 500,000 and 1,000,000 tonnes per annum, and we have also recently completed an upgrade of the Raglan concentrator to process up to 1.5 Mtpa of ore.

Meanwhile, at Sudbury INO, the Onaping Depth deep mine project, which is located below the existing Craig Mine, will provide a significant new source of high-grade nickel ore beyond 2035.

Through these and future initiatives, Glencore will continue to be a part of the journey of nickel for decades to come.

Other video highlights

Introducing Raglan Mine, Canada

Introducing Raglan Mine, Canada
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Introducing Raglan Mine, Canada

Keeping students in school

About the Raglan Education Fund
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About the Raglan Education Fund