Nickel Mining By Alexander DiRezza

Predicted and active increases in nickel demand have incentivized mining companies in locating and harvesting new and known nickel reserves to prepare for future needs. The International Energy Agency expects Indonesia, the world’s largest nickel producer, to meet two thirds of the world’s needs for the metal. The country has already signed deals worth billions of dollars with international players keen to invest in processing plants as well as mines. At the same time, corporations such as The Metals Company are looking to take advantage of vast nickel reserves on the ocean floor.

Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Russia and Canada account for more than 50% of the global nickel resources. Historically, more than 80% of known nickel reserves have been mined, but at the same time, known reserves and resources have steadily increased. This is due to a multitude of factors, including increased surveying and exploration from mining companies, and improvements in refining techniques, allowing for the refinement of lower-quality nickel ore.

Nickel resists corrosion and is used to plate other metals to protect them. It is, however, mainly used in making alloys such as stainless steel. Nichrome is an alloy of nickel and chromium with small amounts of silicon, manganese and iron. It resists corrosion, even when red-hot, so is used in toasters and electric ovens. A copper-nickel alloy is commonly used in desalination plants, which convert seawater into fresh water.  Nickel is used in batteries, including rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries and nickel-metal hydride batteries used in hybrid vehicles. As the world shifts to greener vehicles and needs more rechargeable batteries, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that demand for nickel will grow by at least 65% by 2030.

Nickel mining, while crucial for technological and economic development, is known to cause a number of environmental issues. In Indonesia, nickel mining requires massive deforestation to clear land for excavation. In addition to destroying habitats, this deforestation reduces soil stability, severely increasing runoff and erosion. Rapid deposition of stripped sediments only results in a greater ecological disaster, choking reefs, displacing fish, and destroying the livelihoods of local fishing villages. Toxic industrial mining effluents compound the issue, as trace heavy metals are released into water supplies, further poisoning surrounding areas.

Underwater approaches to nickel mining seek to mitigate the various environmental pitfalls of the more conventional methods, such as those implemented in Indonesia. The Metals Company, for example, plans to use hut-sized robots to stir up sediment on the bottom of the ocean, filter out nickel rich manganese nodules, then use water jets to send them to the surface. This approach arguably has a significantly lesser environmental impact than conventional methods, but has been criticized for its under-researched impact on ocean floor ecosystems.

In the coming decades, the need for nickel will increase proportional to our need for advanced technology, ranging from electric cars, to cell phones, to desalination plants. Nickel is an important resource to our global economy and is slated to become more valuable with time, not less. Even beyond its economic worth, nickel is forecasted to be increasingly valuable as a tool for environmental protection, as electric cars and desalination technologies provide promising solutions to reducing carbon emissions and increasing freshwater availability, respectively. But as we look to a future of nickel, it’s important to remember that nickel isn’t a free resource. Nickel mining, whether in Indonesia or at the bottom of the ocean, has drastic and often detrimental effects on the environment around it. Before we turn to nickel to fund our future, we need to ask ourselves the difficult questions. How much is too much to pay for a future built on nickel?

By Alexander DiRezza