Nickel? Nickel Who?

by Michael Shade, IQS Editor

Nickel is no ytterbium. It has neither the nebulosity of meitnerium nor the mystery of ununhexium. Even other comparatively boring elements like titanium are more exciting than nickel. While titanium can be found grazing the cheeks of famous athletes in razor blade commercials, nickel coins can be found clanking around in dryers all over America along with some desiccated lint and maybe a few bobby pins. The staggeringly uninteresting aluminum is also more captivating than nickel. For example, in the 19th century, at the height of Napoleon III’s reign, aluminum cutlery was rumored to have been given to the emperor’s most honored dinner guests because of its perceived rarity, while the riff-raff vassalry had to get by with gold utensils. Historically, nickel, like a chump, was more often used by accident than intentionally because it was frequently confused with silver, or it was included in alloys of other, more exciting metals by mistake. Nickel? Nickel who?

Inconel image courtesy of Pacific Alloys Corp.

The saga of the world’s realization of nickel’s utility begins with a medieval anecdote from the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) of Germany. Some miners who were trying to extract what they thought was copper from the ore found in the mountains became frustrated when the copper simply refused to be extracted. In their frustration, they blamed a cantankerous mythological German sprite by the name of Nickel for their misfortune. They named the stubborn ore Kupfernickel, which is a hybrid of the German word for copper and the name of their copper-denying adversary. Centuries later, in the 1700s, Nickel still hadn’t come into its own as a valued material. The metallurgical community was vaguely aware of nickel’s distinctness from silver by that point, but they had few uses for it and even fewer effective extraction methods. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when new methods of nickel extraction were developed, that nickel came to be sought after as an alloying material in steel and in coinage. After such a long and embarrassing history of being confused for other, more desirable substances, sharing the edge of the spotlight with iron and carbon was better than being out of the light completely. However, after a few short decades, the tables would start to turn in favor of nickel.

Image courtesy of Aerospace Alloys, Inc.

Nickel has become so popular as a major alloying component that companies have trademarked a host of proprietary names for the nickel compositions they’ve developed. Inconel is the Special Metals Corporation’s name for their nickel-chromium alloy, Kovar is Carpenter Technology Corporation’s nickel-cobalt ferrous alloy and Monel is another of SMC’s alloys, which is composed mainly of nickel and copper. The demand for these and other nickel-based materials knows no bounds, and nickel suppliers sometimes struggle to meet the demand for them. Nickel rods, nickel sheets and other simple nickel shapes are prepared and supplied to customers in the metalworking and fabrication industries; from there emerge the more complex nickel products that are bought and sold in end-user markets. A few examples of these products include magnets, guitar strings, electronics components like microphone capsules, window tinting and, especially in recent decades, batteries. Perhaps the most well-known use of nickel, however, is as coinage.

Nickel was officially an “It” metal the minute the first nickel coin was minted. In the United States, before nickel came to be used as a coinage material, silver was the material of choice for the minting of five cent coins. Short supplies of silver around the time of the Civil War generated the need for a substitute, and a nickel-copper alloy was chosen. The nickel-to-copper ratio in nickel five cent coins fluctuated for many decades until it stabilized after World War II at 20% nickel to 80% copper. By the first decade of the new millennium, market volatility worldwide and the decline of the American dollar contributed to the decline of a nickel’s value compared to the cost of the metal contained in the nickel. In 2007, nickels cost as much as nine cents to produce, prompting the United States government to create legislation that would preclude opportunists from melting down nickel coins and reselling the raw material. Nickel may not be the most exciting metal, but what other material could prompt a wave of element-specific anti-smelting legislation? Nickel, that’s who.

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