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Mineral Monday: Nickel

Posted by: Vicki Ashton
11/07/2016

What do electric guitar strings, rechargeable batteries, plumbing fixtures, magnets and coinage have in common? They all contain nickel!

Beginning in the 1820’s nickel was obtained for industrial purposes as a by-product of cobalt blue production. However the first large-scale production of nickel didn’t occur until the late-1840’s when Norway began to smelt nickel-rich pyrrhotite. Demand for nickel truly began to rocket during the late-1880’s once nickel had been introduced into the production of steel.

Large deposits of nickel were discovered in Canada, Russia and South Africa from the 1880’s through to the 1920’s which made large-scale global production of nickel truly viable.

As outlined in the introduction to this article, nickel has found many varied uses- however perhaps the most interesting has to be in coinage. Since the mid-19th century, nickel has been a component of coins. Coins of nearly pure nickel were first used in 1881 in Switzerland, and 99.9% nickel five-cent coins where struck in Canada during non-war years from 1922-1981. During the 21st century, the high price of nickel has led many countries to abandon the use of nickel from their coinage. Coins still made with nickel-alloys include one and two Euro coins, 5 cent, 10 cent, 25 cent, and 50 cent US coins and 20p, 50p, £1, and £2 UK coins.

Where is it produced / mined?
According to the US Geological Survey Australia is currently the biggest producer of nickel, followed by Botswana, Brazil, Canada and China.

Did you know?

  • The word nickel is a shortened translation of the German word kupfernickel. Kupfer means copper and the term nickel in German referred to Satan or the devil.
  • Nickel is commonly found in many meteorites and is often used to distinguish a meteorite from other minerals.
  • Siderites, which are iron meteorites, can have 5 to 20 percent nickel alloyed with iron.
  • Nickel is 100 times more concentrated below Earth’s crust than in it. Nickel is believed to be the second most abundant element in the Earth’s core with iron most abundant by a large margin.
  • Nickel is corrosion resistant- it is one of the elements used in stainless steel. The presence of nickel in meteorite metal means it would have stayed bright and shiny in the hands of ancient people for much longer than if nickel had been absent.
  • Until the invention of rare-earth magnets, such as neodymium-iron-boron, the strongest permanent magnets- Alnico magnets- were made from a nickel alloy: mainly aluminium, nickel, cobalt and iron. Unusually, Alnico magnets retain their magnetism even when heated until they glow red hot.
  • Nickel and its components are considered to be carcinogenic. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of people are sensitive to nickel. Controversy arose in 2012, when the nickel-alloy in 5p and 10p UK coins was replaced with nickel-plated steel which caused allergy problems for some people, leading to a public outcry.
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