Nickel. Industrial Contamination

I am trying to uncover what goes in to making a wind turbine. I now know they are made up of around 70% steel, and to make steel iron ore is a major component in the processing. Nickel is mixed with iron ore to strengthen the product. Nickel is mined mainly in Canada, Russia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia. It is now in huge demand as lithium batteries need nickel in their build. The electric vehicles are coming on stream to reduce the reliance on petrol based combustion.

The alloying element which makes steel ‘stainless is chromium; however it is the addition of nickel that enables stainless steel to become such a versatile alloy. From The Nickel Institute.

Nickel is the fifth most common element found on Earth, and has been known to be used by humans as far back as 3500 B.C. Nickel was used by the Chinese in naturally occurring nickel-copper alloys for over two thousand years. Nickel is found as a constituent in most meteorites and often serves as one of the criteria for distinguishing a meteorite from other earthly minerals. Iron meteorites, or siderites, may contain iron alloyed with from 5% to nearly 20% nickel. Meteorites provided a source of metal for sword blades used by warriors in China, Persia and Northern Europe.

Nickel (Ni) was not recognized as an element substance until 1751 when Swedish chemist, Baron Alex Frederic Constedt, isolated the metal from niccolite ore. It was not until 150 years later that nickel was first extracted on a commercial scale.

Nickel is ferromagnetic, that is, it is attracted to a permanent magnet. It takes a high polish, and does not easily tarnish or rust. Nickel can be hammered into thin sheets or drawn into wires. One pound (0.4 kilogram) of pure nickel could be drawn into a wire 80 miles (130 kilometres) long.

When the Canadian Pacific Railroad was built in 1883, the nickel mines of Sudbury, now world famous, were discovered. Thanks to U.S. capital and strategic technology, the mines were developed to become leading suppliers to the world, but mostly to the United States.

WWII Poster

NS Energy put up a list of the 5 most productive nickel producing companies in 2020. These are No 1

No 1: Vale – 208,000 metric tonnes

Formerly called Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, Vale is a diversified multinational metals and mining company founded in 1942, and headquartered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil;

No 2: Norilsk Nickel – 166,265 metric tonnes

Established in 1993 with headquarters in Moscow, Russia’s Norilsk Nickel is a diversified mining company producing nickel and palladium – as well as silver, gold, platinum, rhodium, cobalt, sulfur, selenium, tellurium, iridium and ruthenium;

An article in the Guardian said: The company has a lot of ground to make up – its home city of Norilsk is rated one of the most polluted cities in the world, thanks largely to the 350,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide emitted annually by the city’s nickel factory, which was decommissioned last year. In 2016, Norilsk Nickel made headlines when an overflow of oxidised nickel waste turned the city’s Daldykan river red.

No 3. Jinchuan Group – 150,000 metric tonnes

Founded in 1958 and based in Gansu, Jinchuan Group International Resources is China’s top nickel producer and comes third in our list of world’s top nickel-producing companies.

With a large-scale international presence, Jinchuan is a diversified mining company whose major operations include mining, milling, smelting and chemical processing;

No 4. Glencore – 121,000 metric tonnes

Switzerland-based commodity trading and diversified mining company Glencore was established in 1974.

Fourth in our list of leading nickel producers, Glencore has assets in Europe, North America and Australia. It runs about 150 operations globally, which include mining, metallurgical and oil production sites. It also produces some of the world’s purest nickel.

No 5. BHP Group – 87,400 metric tonnes

Previously known as BHP Billiton, Melbourne-headquartered, Anglo-Australian diversified mining company BHP Group increased its nickel production from 70,000 metric tonnes in 2017 to 87,400 tonnes in 2019.

All its nickel operations―whether open-cut or underground mines, concentrators, smelters or refineries – are located in Western Australia.

In the Philippine islands, there are many mining companies. Since these activities became so harmful to the workers and local population, some of these have been forced to close.

An article in the Guardian said: observers can see “plumes of sulphur dioxide choking the skies, churned earth blanketed in cancerous dust, rivers running blood-red – environmental campaigners have painted a grim picture of the nickel mines and smelters feeding the electric vehicle industry.” See Guardian article, 2017

Philippines Nickel Reserves, 2010

But China has a need for nickel and have persuaded the Philippine government to supply nickel despite attempting to ban mining to save the environment.

Miners struggling with low nickel prices have welcomed rising demand from an industry that the International Energy Agency estimates will deploy up to 70m electric vehicles by 2025 (pdf).

One of the waste materials is slag. It can accumulate over the life of the mine and It needs to be disposed of carefully, burying it somehow or covering it with clay. This is costly and often not regulated.

South32, which spun-off from BHP Billiton in 2015, runs the Cerro Matoso mine in Colombia, where residents of nearby communities and mine workers have reported elevated rates of deformities and respiratory problems associated with exposure to pollution generated by nickel mining and smelting (pdf).

Cerro Matoso

A BHP Billiton spokesperson told the Guardian all the company’s projects met environmental approval requirements.

Dr David Santillo, a senior scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories, says : “The mining of nickel-rich ores themselves, combined with their crushing and transportation by conveyor belt, truck or train, can generate high loadings of dust in the air, dust that itself contains high concentrations of potentially toxic metals, including nickel itself, copper, cobalt and chromium.

“We have to get smarter at recovering and reusing the vast quantities that we have already extracted from the earth, rather than relying on continued pursuit of new reserves of ever poorer quality and at substantial environmental cost.”

French carmaker Renault, producer of the Zoe, Europe’s best-selling electric vehicle in 2016, said that it recycles almost 70% of the battery weight, although did not specify what proportion of nickel is recycled.

Tesla claims that the nickel in its vehicles is 100% reusable at the end of life, but refused to disclose to the Guardian where the nickel in its car batteries is sourced from.

In a statement a Tesla spokesperson said suppliers were “three or four layers removed from Tesla. It is obviously quite difficult to have perfect knowledge about everything that happens this far down in the supply chain, but we’ve worked extremely hard to gather as much information as possible and to ensure that our standards are being met.”Robert Baylis, from the mining consultancy Roskill, says entering the electric vehicle supply chain will see nickel miners attract additional scrutiny over carbon emissions.

A 2009 study published in PLOS One concluded that the global warming potential of mining and processing nickel was the eighth highest of 63 metals over the previous year. However, a 2016 Union of Concerned Scientists study (pdf) found that the manufacture and operation of electric vehicles produced less than half the carbon emissions of comparable petrol and diesel-powered vehicles.

Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel has responded to pressure on carbon emissions and claims to have reduced its use of coal-fired energy by 49% in 2016 (pdf).

“It is of strategic importance to us as a key player in the supply chain that is enabling the growth of electric vehicles and clean energy solutions,” says Larisa Zelkova, vice-president at Norilsk Nickel.

Andy Whitmore of the London Mining Network, a coalition of anti-mining campaign groups, says nickel producers should sign up to international standards such as the Initiative on Responsible Mining Assurance.

There is no momentum to reverse the damage of mining, no desire to be the first to close down these environmentally dangerous mines and perhaps focus on recycling existing nickel in a responsible manner. Human greed has damned us all.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/isbn/9780749427917
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