The Role of Nickel in Manufacturing Stainless Steel and Other Alloys

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Nickel (NI) is a low-cost, highly versatile industrial material. A transition element with a mixture of ferrous and non-ferrous properties, it’s widely used in manufacturing an exceptionally wide variety of products thanks to its chemical and physical properties. Nickel and nickel alloys are ideal for many aerospace, chemical, and petrochemical processing applications because of their corrosion resistance and superior performance in high-temperature environments.  

Nickel also plays a critical role in manufacturing stainless steel in today’s industry. About 65% percent of global nickel production is used in producing austenitic stainless steel while another 12 percent is used in generating superalloys like Waspaloy®—an age-hardenable, nickel-based superalloy that exhibits excellent strength and corrosion resistance through temperatures of 980°C (1800°F). Put simply, stainless steel is the go-to material for fulfilling many advanced applications.

Unique Qualities That Make Nickel Essential for Manufacturing

Nickel is popular in manufacturing because of its unique chemical and physical properties. It resembles iron in strength and toughness and copper in resistance to oxidation and corrosion. A silver-white metal, Nickel is malleable and ductile, conducts heat and electricity well, and exhibits magnetic properties below 345°C. Nickel is also readily fabricated using standard production methods. Ferromagnetic at ordinary temperatures and less electropositive than iron, Nickel dissolves readily in dilute acids.   

Nickel alloys with most metals. In fact, it’s the most common metal in alloys, helping to produce combinations like Nickel chrome, Nickel-iron, Nickel-copper, Nickel molybdenum, and Nickel-titanium alloys. When added to a metal, Nickel transfers its properties to the material it’s alloyed with. Properties it can transfer include:

  • Versatility
  • Toughness
  • Magnetic properties
  • Electronic properties
  • Corrosion resistance
  • Oxidation resistance
  • Strength at higher/lower temperatures

Nickel alloys can enable manufacturers to achieve specific characteristics in a material, such as increased corrosion and oxidation resistance, lower coefficients of thermal expansion, and better high-temperature performance. Nickel alloys are available in three categories: high temperature, corrosion resistance, and electrical conductivity.

Nickel alloys are resistant to softening and to metals loss at high temperatures from oxidation, sulfidation, or carburization and perform well at temperatures exceeding 1832°F (1000°C)—all while retaining their quality, weldability, workability, and ductility. Plus, they offer an average life span of 25-30 years.  

Critical in Manufacturing Stainless Steel

Nickel plays a major role in manufacturing stainless steel. While chromium makes steel “stainless,” it’s Nickel that makes this material such a tough, highly versatile substance. Nickel-containing stainless steels are easy to form and weld, remain ductile at low temperatures, and work well in high-temperature applications. Unlike conventional steel and non-Nickel-containing stainless steel, Nickel-containing stainless steel is non-magnetic. Plus, it’s sustainable and easy to produce.

Stainless steel’s versatility makes it well-suited for a wide range of industrial uses in the chemical and petrochemical, health, food, aerospace, and transportation industries. Nickel-containing grades of stainless steel make up about 75% of stainless steel production. The best-known nickel-based stainless steels are Type 304 (8% nickel) and Type 316 (11% nickel). Nickel-containing stainless steels are widely and economically available in all shapes and quantities globally. Often, they are the lowest-risk material of choice in many applications.

Methods of Incorporating Nickel into Stainless Steel and Alloys

The most common methods of incorporating Nickel in stainless steel are casting, rolling, forging, and extrusion. Each method has its advantages. For example, nickel-based castings are used primarily for their complex shapes. Cold rolling, on the other hand, prevents shrinkage or creeping at ambient temperatures, while metal forgings offer higher mechanical properties and better ductility (depending on the alloy). Needless to say, it’s critical that manufacturers choose the correct production method for their applications.

Companies producing nickel-based stainless steel and alloys face several challenges. Among them is the low availability of raw materials, thanks partly to supply chain disruptions. That also increases raw material costs for manufacturers. Additional challenges include the shortage of skilled workers, the high cost of production, poor quality control, high energy consumption, availability of substitute products, stringent regulatory frameworks for raw material extraction and mining, and COVID-19 recovery issues.

The future of Nickel Containing Alloys is Bright

The future for high-performance nickel-containing stainless steel and other alloys is bright. Analysts expect the market size for high-performance alloys to grow to USD 11.34 billion by 2024 and at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.7%. Introducing new manufacturing methods, like high-performance alloy processing techniques, and innovative production technologies, like green steel making, will eventually impact the marketplace for high-performance alloys.

But It’s market demand that will ultimately drive the future growth of these stainless steel and nickel-containing alloys, including the increased demand in the aerospace industry for light materials and the production of new generations of aircraft. The increasing need for tough alloys in critical applications, such as oil and gas extraction, thermal processing, petroleum production, and industrial gas turbine manufacturing, will also drive demand. Fulfilling the needs of India and China will also fuel growth.

Stainless Steel Demand to Expand

Nickel is a major industrial material. A common manufacturing element offering ferrous and non-ferrous properties, Nickel is often used in manufacturing to produce a wide variety of industrial products, like aircraft gas turbines and steam turbine power plants, thanks to its versatility and unique chemical and physical properties. Nickel also alloys with most metals, imparting its characteristics to the other metal. These alloys perform well at temperatures exceeding 1832°F (1000°C) and exhibit excellent corrosion resistance.

Nickel also plays a vital role in manufacturing stainless steel and other high-performance alloys and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Analysts expect demand for stainless steel to grow by about 5.5% in the coming years as the needs of customers and consumers change. Increased demand, especially from the aerospace industry, will be the key force driving market growth. Advancements in the auto industry and innovations in electric vehicles will also boost stainless steel demand.

Still have questions regarding Nickel and Stainless Steel? Feel free to contact us. Put our expertise in metals to work for you.

Bianca Van der Watt

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