Nickel alloys and nickel-containing stainless steels are essential materials in a wide spectrum of medical instruments and devices. These range from innovative surgical tools and techniques to a variety of devices used to manage chronic conditions. Nickel alloys and stainless steels are employed in a range of implantable medical devices, ranging from orthopaedic applications such as joint replacements to stents used in angioplasty.
Nickel-containing materials and products play an essential role in helping healthcare companies advance global healthcare. They are part of manufacturers’ response to the continuing challenge of health. Many key nickel applications make an essential contribution to optimal medical solutions and prolonging lives.
Nickel-containing stainless steel is also widely used in manufacturing medical devices, pharmaceuticals and vaccines, where the highest standards of hygiene and sterility are essential. These materials are equally vital in hospitals and medical centres, where they help maintain the optimal hygiene levels required to prevent the spread of harmful organisms.
These desirable properties of nickel alloys and nickel-containing stainless steels are ideally matched to the current needs of the medical sector and medical device developers.
Surgical materials, tools and equipment must be easy to sterilise and must not pose a threat to human health. The properties of nickel-containing stainless steels bring this feature to the healthcare sector, through:
Ease of cleaning
Excellent corrosion resistance to aggressive disinfecting chemicals
Ease of welding
Excellent surface finish on medical tools
Non-magnetic with no interference with sensitive electronics
Ability to withstand cryogenic temperatures
Minimal moisture absorption and high surface cleanliness.
Innovative nickel-containing specialty stainless steels are essential in creating the complex precision instruments needed for minimally invasive surgeries. Increasingly, they are in demand for the high-tech components needed for advanced robotic surgery. Designing these instruments has only been possible because of specialty stainless steel grades, specifically developed to meet the demands created by their intended environment.
Implantable medical devices, such as stents or pacemakers – are designed to replace or support normal biological functions – have driven many advances in modern health. As the devices are used internally, it is essential they are non-toxic and biocompatible. This is why implantable medical devices rely on a range of nickel-containing stainless steels and nickel alloys, to provide the safety and reliability they need.
Nickel alloys have a long history of use in implants and have made important contributions to the quality of life of millions of people
For example, orthopedic implants such as knee, hip and other joint replacements, and the associated screws, plates and wires, are typically made from stainless steels.
Nickel also delivers other valuable properties with vital clinical applications. For example, Nitinol (nickel-titanium) shape-memory alloys offer a combination of properties that make them ideal for self-expanding stents used to treat vascular conditions.
Drug manufacturing - Pharmaceutical and Biopharmaceutical industries
Life expectancy has substantially increased during the course of the last hundred years, in no small part due to advances in medicine, technology and public health. As a result, many countries in the world now have an ageing population and, with that, increasing healthcare costs. Spending on healthcare is increasing and expected to continue to rise. Nickel-containing stainless steel is an important and cost-efficient material in drug manufacturing equipment, providing machinery and tubing surfaces that are smooth, easy to clean and sanitize and, if necessary, to decontaminate.
The qualities and high performance found in nickel-containing stainless steel play a vital role in the manufacture of advanced drugs and medical materials and equipment.
Fermentation technologies, particularly in the biotechnology industry, are undergoing a renaissance. There are increasing growth prospects foreseen in medical applications. Synthetic biological treatments for major diseases are expected to experience annual growth of 18% over the next four to five years compared to an expected 3-4% for traditional, non-biological ‘small molecule’ treatments. 316L stainless steel production equipment is used in cost-effective, large-scale manufacturing in the biotechnology industry. A new approach to manufacturing is also emerging, with the use of ‘single-use bioreactors’ (SUB). This consists of a stainless steel reactor, vessel, tank and pipe lined with medical grade polyethylene for the production of a ‘batch’ of a specific molecule. This is a growing ‘green’ trend in drug manufacturing seen in the last five to six years, but is currently at early stage of development within the biopharma industry.
Nickel makes many unseen contributions to the medical sector. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) provides unrivalled imaging of soft tissues such as brain, muscle, heart - as well as tumours - without subjecting patients to ionising radiation. At the core of every MRI system is a powerful magnet (up to 300,000 times more powerful than the earth’s magnetic field), which relies on the nickel-containing stainless steel used for its construction. In addition, its non-magnetic characteristics make it an ideal structural material for fabrication many life-saving technologies.
It is not simply the corrosion resistance of nickel-containing austenitic stainless steel that makes it essential for medical environments. The ability to withstand ultra-low temperatures (-269°C) make it indispensable for containing the liquid nitrogen used in cryosurgery for removing abnormal tissue.