Nickel

Nickel (Ni) is a lustrous, silvery-white metal that has relatively low electrical and thermal conductivities, has strength and toughness at elevated temperatures, is easily shaped into thin wires and flat sheets and is capable of being magnetised. More than 80% of nickel production is used in alloys. When alloyed with other elements, nickel imparts toughness, strength, resistance to corrosion and various electrical, magnetic and heat resistant properties. About 65% of world nickel output is consumed in the manufacture of stainless steel, which is used widely in the chemical industry, motor vehicles, the construction industry and in consumer products such as sinks, cooking utensils, cutlery and white-goods. Other uses of nickel include nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries, some jewellery and medical applications, such as artificial hips and knees.

Some of the world's largest komatiite-hosted nickel sulphide and lateritic deposits occur in Australia, predominantly in Western Australia. In 2012, Australia was the largest holder of economic nickel resources in the world with approximately 25% of global resources.

Australia's nickel production is dominated by komatiite deposits (82%) that are associated with Archean (>2 500 million years old) greenstone sequences, whereas the majority of Australia's nickel resources are located in laterite deposits (69%). This is in contrast to the world situation where komatiite deposits (18%) provide the fourth largest contribution after flood basalts (30%), astrobleme (20%) and basal sulphide associations (20%).

Australian komatiite-hosted and layered mafic-ultramafic intrusion nickel deposits usually occur in Archean cratons or Proterozoic orogens and, therefore, are largely confined to the older crustal components of Western Australia, such as the Eastern Goldfields Province and the Yilgarn Craton, and of South Australia (Figure 3.18). Western Australia is the largest holder of nickel resources with about 90% of total Australian economic resources, followed by New South Wales with 5%, Queensland with 4% and Tasmania with less than 1% (Figure 3.19).

Most of Australia's nickel is produced from the mines at Mount Keith and Leinster, located north of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. Australia was the fourth-largest nickel producer in 2012 behind the Philippines, Indonesia and Russia, accounting for 12.5% of estimated world mine production.

Figure 3.18 is a map of Australia showing the names, locations and size of major nickel deposits. The map also shows the state boundaries and capital cities as well as the major geological provinces of the country. Nickel deposits are displayed as filled blue circles split into five sizes according to the total in situ resources of nickel. The five sizes are labelled '<0.5 million tonnes', '0.5 to 1 million tonnes', '1 to 2 million tonnes', '2 to 3 million tonnes' and 'greater than 3 million tonnes'. In addition, some circles are drawn with a heavy black line indicating that these deposits are operating mines. The map shows the greatest concentrations of significant nickel deposits in Australia occur in the Archean lithologies of the Yilgarn region of Western Australia. Other clusters of nickel deposits occur in Ordovician rocks in the central west of New South Wales and in Proterozoic rocks in central Australia near the Western Australian-Northern Territory-South Australia border. Scattered, small deposits occur in Queensland and Tasmania.

Figure 3.18 Australia's major nickel deposits based on total Identified Resources.
Source: Geoscience Australia.

Resources and Reserves

Table 3.25 Australia's resources of nickel with world figures as at December 2012.
Units JORC Reserves (% of EDR) Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) Paramarginal Demonstrated Resources Submarginal Demonstrated Resources Inferred Resources Accessible EDR Mine Production in 2012 World Economic Resources World Mine Production in 2012
Source: Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics and the United States Geological Survey; Paramarginal and submarginal demonstrated resources are subeconomic at this time; Mt = million tonnes.
Mt 7.5 (42%) 17.7 4.2 0.2 17.8 17.7 0.244 72.6 2.14

Figure 3.19 comprises two pie charts side by side. The one on the left shows the percentage of Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of nickel held by each state and territory in Australia as at December 2012. The chart on the right shows the percentage of total nickel resources held by each state and territory in Australia as at December 2012. Western Australia totally dominates nickel EDR with 96% and similarly dominates total nickel resources with 90%. New South Wales, the Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania all have a small proportion of total nickel resources.

Figure 3.19 Percentages of Economic Demonstrated Resources and total resources of nickel held by the states and territories in Australia. Total resources comprise all Demonstrated and Inferred Resources. Numbers are rounded so might not add up to 100% exactly.
Source: Geoscience Australia.

World Ranking

Table 3.26 World economic resources ranking for nickel.
Rank Country Nickel (kt) Percentage of world total
Source: United States Geological Survey and Geoscience Australia; Figures are rounded to the nearest hundred thousand tonnes; Percentages are rounded so might not add up to 100% exactly; kt = kilotonnes.
1 Australia 17 700 24%
2 New Caledonia 12 000 17%
3 Brazil 7500 10%
4 Russia 6100 8%
5 Cuba 5500 8%
6 Indonesia 3900 5%
7 South Africa 3700 5%
8 Canada 3300 5%
9 China 3000 4%
10 Madagascar 1600 2%
  Others 8400 12%
  Total 72 700  
Table 3.27 World production ranking for nickel.
Rank Country Nickel (kt) Percentage of world total
Source: World Bureau of Metal Statistics and the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics; Percentages are rounded so might not add up to 100% exactly; kt = kilotonnes.
1 Philippines 316 16%
2 Russia 269 14%
3 Indonesia 255 13%
4 Australia 244 13%
5 Canada 204 10%
6 New Caledonia 132 7%
7 China 93 5%
8 Brazil 87 4%
9 Cuba 66 3%
10 Colombia 52 3%
  Others 228 12%
  Total 1946  

Trends

The EDR for nickel increased during the period 1995 to 2001 by 18.2 Mt (Figure 3.20). This resulted mainly because of progressive increases in resources of lateritic deposits at Bulong, Cawse, Murrin Murrin, Mount Margaret, Ravensthorpe, all in Western Australia, as well as Marlborough in Queensland and Syerston and Young in New South Wales. Between 1999 and 2000, Australia's EDR of nickel doubled (Figure 3.20). This dramatic increase was a result of further large increases in resources at the Mount Margaret and Ravensthorpe deposits, and other lateritic deposits in the Kalgoorlie region of Western Australia. In addition, during the period 1995 to 2001 there were increases in resources of Western Australian sulphide deposits at Yakabindie, and the high-grade discoveries at Silver Swan and Cosmos.

From 2001 onwards, sharp rises in market prices for nickel led to increased expenditure on exploration and on evaluation drilling at many known deposits. This contributed to further increases in total EDR for sulphide deposits at Perseverance, Savannah, Maggie Hays, Anomaly 1, Honeymoon Well deposits in the Forrestania area, as well as new deposits at Prospero and Tapinos in Western Australia, Avebury in Tasmania and remnant resources at several sulphide deposits in the Western Australia's Kambalda region, including Otter-Juan and Lanfranchi groups of deposits.

However, the EDR increased at a slower rate from 2001 onwards (Figure 3.20) because of the absence of further discoveries of lateritic nickel deposits and as a result of increases in resources for some deposits being offset by companies reclassifying their lateritic nickel resources to lower resource categories pending more detailed drilling and resource assessments. Decreases in nickel EDR from 2009 onwards (Figure 3.20) reflect reclassification of nickel resources in response to the very sharp falls in nickel prices following the 2008-09 global financial crisis followed by only a partial recovery in nickel prices from 2009 onwards.

Figure 3.20 shows the Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of nickel from 1975 to 2012. There is one line on the chart. The vertical axis is labelled in millions of tonnes beginning at 0 and in increments of 5 million. The horizontal axis is labelled with the year starting with 1975 and ending with 2012. In the graph, the line starts at 1.9 million tonnes in 1975 and ranges from 1 to 2.2 million tonnes until 1989. 1n 1990, nickel EDR increased to 3 million tonnes, then approximately doubled in 1996 to 6.4 million tonnes and kept increased to 10.6 million tonnes in 1999. In 2000, nickel EDR again approximately doubled to 20 million tonnes and reached a peak of 26.4 million tonnes in 2008. EDR of nickel has since declined to 17.7 million tonnes in 2012.

Figure 3.20 Trends in Economic Demonstrated Resources for nickel since 1975.
Source: Geoscience Australia.

Resource to Production Ratio

Table 3.28 Indicative years of nickel resources (rounded to the nearest 5 years) as a ratio of Accessible Economic Demonstrated Resources divided by the production rate for each year.
Year 1998 2003 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Source: Geoscience Australia.
AEDR/Production 65 120 130 145 120 95 75