Nickel's Role in Sustainable Transportation

Nickel-containing products are widely used in all forms of sustainable transportation including automobiles, trucks, buses and passenger rail cars. Personal mobility, in the form of automobiles and light trucks, has received much attention from regulators and automobile manufacturers. Accordingly, we believe that this subject will be of most interest to members of the automobile supply chain and, hence, it will be our focus. However, it should be noted that many of the sustainability benefits that nickel-containing products bring to the automotive sector apply equally to other modes of transportation.

  1. Nickel - Natural, Essential and Plentiful
  2. What is Nickel Used For?
  3. Nickel and the Auto Industry
  4. Recycling Nickel in Autos
  5. Nickel, Hazard and Risk
  6. Life Cycle and Sustainability Dialogue: A work in Progress
  7. Feedback

1. Nickel - Natural, Essential and Plentiful

Nickel is the fifth most common element making up the earth. Although most of the nickel is inaccessible in the core of the earth, nickel occurs extensively in the earth's crust.

It is essential for healthy plant life. Nickel is found in most vegetables, fruits and nuts - and in food products derived from them, for example chocolate and wine.

It is currently mined in over 23 countries. Most important are Russia, Canada, New Caledonia, Australia, Indonesia, Cuba, China, South Africa, Dominican Republic, Botswana, Columbia, Greece and Brazil. Japan, United Kingdom, Finland and France, although they mine little or no nickel, are significant refiners of nickel.

Global production of nickel was 1.33 million tonnes in 2009 from mined sources (Source: INSG) plus an estimated 600,000 tonnes from scrap sources.

2. What is Nickel Used for?

Nickel readily combines with other metals to form alloys, especially iron, cobalt, copper (neighbours in the periodic table). Alloy properties include better corrosion resistance, better toughness, better strength at various temperatures and a wide range of special magnetic and electronic properties.

Most important are alloys of iron, nickel and chromium, of which stainless steels (8-12% nickel) are the largest volume. Nickel based alloys, like stainless steel but with higher nickel content are used for more demanding applications. Iron and nickel alloys are used in electronics and specialist engineering. Copper and nickel alloys are used for coinage and marine engineering. There are about 3000 nickel-containing alloys in everyday use. About 90% of all new nickel sold each year goes into alloys, two-thirds going into stainless steel.

Nickel is used to provide hard-wearing decorative and engineering coatings as "nickel-plating" or "electroless nickel coating" or "electroforming". When used together with chromium, it is popularly known as "chrome-plating". When done in combination with silicon carbide it is known as composite plating. Nickel is a key part of several rechargeable battery systems used in electronics, power tools, transport and emergency power supply. Most important are nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) and nickel-cadmium (NiCd). Nickel is a key ingredient in many catalysts. Nickel powders are used for sintered parts, especially sintered steels, and for welding and spraying.

3. Nickel and the Auto Industry

Nickel is very versatile. The end uses are many and varied. Supply chains can be very long. About two-thirds of all new nickel is used to make stainless steel, but end uses of stainless steel are themselves many and varied. Nickel-containing products are used widely throughout the automobile and transportation sector with no single use dominating. Many different products made by a variety of sectors and processes use nickel.

It is estimated that the automotive sector accounts for about 7-8% of new nickel use, approximately 90,000 tonnes of nickel each year.

For more about nickel use in the automotive industry, see Applications.

4. Recycling Nickel in Autos

See the Recycling Nickel in Autos section.

5. Nickel, Hazard and Risk

Nickel and its compounds are found on the restricted substances lists of several automakers, although the use of nickel metal and nickel-containing alloys is usually not restricted (but its use may have to be reported.

Nickel has some properties which has led to it being classified as a hazardous substance in certain situations. Nickel can be associated with toxicity, carcinogenicity and with dermal sensitization - more information can be found under those topics in the Health & Environmental Science and Safe Use link at the top of this page.

Also see: Does Nickel in Auto Parts Pose a Risk of Dermatitis to Automobile Users? 

The nickel industry operates a Product Stewardship policy and is committed to act to discourage inappropriate use of nickel. To learn more click here.

Nickel use makes a very high practical contribution to improvements of health, safety and protection of the environment.

6. Life Cycle and Sustainability Dialogue - A Work in Progress

The nickel industry has produced life cycle inventory (LCI) statistics (see life cycle inventory data) and continues to work on life cycle assessment (LCA) and eco-indicator methodology to ensure that fair treatment is given to long life, recycling and hazard.

There are ongoing efforts to improve understanding of nickel recycling and generate recycling statistics and performance measures. With respect to recycling, we need help developing good statistics for recycling of nickel from end of life vehicles (ELV) and to be made aware of any practical problems relating to nickel use and ELV recycling (see recycling data).

We have also worked to improve scientific understanding of hazards and risks associated with nickel production and use. (see www.nipera.org) and through efforts such as this web site, to communicate hazards, risks and safe use information through all parts of the automotive supply chain.

We have engaged the regulatory community to seek appropriate and proportionate regulation and seek to operate an effective product stewardship policy to ensure that nickel is used appropriately (see product management).

We will continue to work through the supply chain to encourage technical innovation to deliver improved performance and cost effectiveness.

At the same time we are looking for input from the auto industry to promote sensible methodology for life cycle inventory, life cycle analysis and eco-indicators. We need assistance to reach the automotive community to promote risk and hazard literacy not only with respect to regulators, but also among colleagues in marketing, advertising and public relations functions to achieve practical and proportionate approaches to risk management. We need to avoid a "tyranny of lists", i.e., restricting the use of a substance based on another company or even another industry's restriction, whether appropriate or not. By joining us in communicating coherent messages to fragmented supply chains, you will be keeping the door open for future innovation and ensuring that the auto industry retains the ability to use nickel in future, as yet undeveloped, uses.

7. Feedback

If you have any questions, concerns or issues about the use of nickel-containing products in automobiles, please contact us.