Nickel: its properties and common uses

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Nickel alloys were first used in ancient China and Peru. In China it was called “white copper” but usually combined with zinc to produce a lightweight alternative to iron. In Peru it was usually combined with copper to produce a material resembling silver. Naturally however, nickel occurs in iron rich minerals like pentlandite and garnierite. The world’s chief suppliers are Russia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Brazil and Canada.

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Nickel is plentiful in supply, low in toxicity, resistant to corrosion and stable at high temperatures. As a result, it provides opportunities for manufacturers in many different industrial sectors.

Environmental and food safety

Nickel occurs naturally in agricultural soils and in fact is essential for many crops. For example, haricot beans – often used in baked beans – are high in nickel and won’t grow without it. Other foodstuffs naturally high in nickel include cocoa, chocolate, nuts, spinach, oats and maize. Nickel is also used to hydrogenate vegetable oils and desalinate water.

In combination with iron, nickel creates the alloy stainless steel. Stainless steel has excellent corrosion resistance and ductility, making it indispensable for many kinds of industry, and its smooth stable surface makes it perfect in food production and brewing. Many food industry regulations require food-grade stainless steel because of its washability and non-toxicity. The many types are described here

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Pure or poorly alloyed nickel can be leached out by the salt in human body fluids and absorbed through pores or wounds alongside bacteria. The immune system then associates it with infection causing an allergy. Cheap jewellery and cosmetics are the main offenders. However, stainless steel and good quality nickel composites rarely cause allergies.

Other manufacturing uses

The melting point of nickel is 1455 degrees centigrade and even at high temperatures it remains chemically and structurally stable. An alloy with chrome, manganese, silicon and iron, called nichrome, is used in toasters and ovens. High nickel alloys X-750 and alloy 80A are used for rocket engines, turbine blades, propeller shafts and jet engine exhaust valves.

The useful properties of nickel are preserved when it is used in metallic coatings or in combination with ceramics and polymers in nickel composites. Nickel composites provide highly durable non-stick surfaces ideal for mould release. Friction often decreases in response to heavier loads.

Nickel also has useful electrical properties and is the most common ingredient in batteries.

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