Because the ores of nickel are easily mistaken for ores of silver, understanding of this metal and its use dates to relatively recent times. However, the unintentional use of nickel is ancient, and can be traced back as far as 3500 BC. Bronzes from what is now Syria had contained up to 2% nickel. Further, there are Chinese manuscripts suggesting that “white copper” was used there between 1700 and 1400 BC. This Paktong white copper was exported to Britain as early as the 17th century, but the nickel content of this alloy was not discovered until 1822.
The first large-scale producer of nickel was Norway, which exploited nickel-rich pyrrhotite from 1848 on. The introduction of nickel in steel production in 1889 increased the demand for nickel, and the nickel deposits of New Caledonia, which were discovered in 1865, provided most of the world’s supply between 1875 and 1915. The discovery of the large deposits in the Sudbury Basin, Canada in 1883, in Norilsk-Talnakh, Russia in 1920, and in the Merensky Reef, South Africa in 1924 made large-scale production of nickel possible.
Nickel is recovered through extractive metallurgy. Nickel is extracted from its ores by conventional roasting and reduction processes that yield a metal of greater than 75% purity.
The fraction of global nickel production presently used for various applications is as follows: 46% for making nickel steels; 34% in nonferrous alloys and superalloys; 14% electroplating, and 6% into other uses.
Nickel is used in many specific and recognizable industrial and consumer products, including stainless steel, magnets, coinage, rechargeable batteries, microphone capsules, and special alloys used for offshore and aerospace applications. It is also used for plating and as a green tint in glass. Nickel is preeminently an alloy metal, and its chief use is in the nickel steels and nickel cast irons, of which there are many varieties. It is also widely used in many other alloys, such as nickel brasses and bronzes, and alloys with copper, chromium, aluminium, lead, cobalt, silver, and gold.