There is a looming crisis in the nickel market.
Some would argue it’s a good problem to have. Demand is set to rise on the back of increasing uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles through this decade. More and more governments will mandate the production of electric vehicles (EVs) over internal combustion engine (ICE) autos. In parts of Europe, there will be outright bans on new ICE vehicles inside 10 years.
However, if nickel supply becomes constrained, consumers are going to pay the price.
Nickel market numbers
It should be said that today the problem barely registers as a price lever.
According to a recent McKinsey report, the stainless steel industry consumers 74% of nickel produced today, dwarfing the 5-8% going into batteries.
But the type of nickel required for battery production is what makes supply so sensitive in the future.
As the report explains, there are two types of nickel. Class 1 predominantly comes from the concentration, smelting and refining of sulfide ores. Meanwhile, Class 2 comes from ores, called saprolites and limonites, with higher iron and other (for batteries) levels of contaminants, such as copper.
So, whereas the stainless steel industry, to a large extent, can use a mix of Class 1 and Class 2, the battery industry draws its raw material from just Class 1, representing a more restricted 46% of the nickel supply market.
Worse, after the all the focus on the cobalt market — with its environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) concerns from countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo — major consumers like Tesla are keen to establish long-term supply arrangements with nickel producers in sustainable locations with more robust ESG standards.
The challenges of nickel production
Nickel’s production process is unique to every location because of the unconformity of nickel ore deposits.
Indeed, the report suggests it is one of the most challenging of the major metal groups to refine. The need to use products like sulphuric or hydrochloric acid, the potential to release sulfur dioxide fumes and potentially poisonous emissions — like arsenic, fluorine, and chlorine — mean the environmental footprint of mines, concentration plants, and refining facilities can be substantial. In addition, they carry the potential for significant environmental and reputational damage.
For some miners, of course, this provides a real opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
Like the trend of “green” aluminum produced wholly from renewable power sources, green nickel presents an opportunity for those fortunate enough to be located appropriately or with sufficient control over the supply chain to create an enhanced value narrative.
However, such differentiation comes with a price.
Demand from EV battery makers will rise. In turn, so will the pressure on the small slice of the nickel supply market able to meet that demand.
The result could be a bifurcated nickel market in the future. In that vein, we could see a more commodity end Class 2 producing products, like nickel pig iron, trading at a significant discount to the premium Class 1 market. Even at the most conservative estimates, Class 1 demand will outstrip supply by 2029. At the more bullish end of the range, it could happen by 2024, according to McKinsey.
These are interesting times for the nickel market.