From Rocks to Riches—The Story of Nickel
By “Awake!” correspondent in Canada
DURING the Middle Ages the alchemist’s dream was that one day he would be able to turn iron into silver, and lead into gold. His tools were magic and secret formulas. For these, modern technology has substituted science and daring, banishing the alchemist into oblivion. At the same time technology has released useful materials and vast wealth from what previously was considered to be virtually worthless rock.
There are few places on earth, if any, where this is more evident than in the nickel-mining district of Sudbury, in the province of Ontario, Canada, the location of one of the richest mineral deposits known to man.
Origin of the Ore Bodies
After years of trying to solve the riddle of the origin of this great storehouse of wealth, with its unique geological formations and unusual topographical features, many geologists now accept a theory that finds support from field examination and laboratory analysis. They believe that the rich Sudbury Basin, as geologists have named it, is actually the remains of an enormous crater blasted out of the earth’s crust by a giant meteorite. They estimate that the meteorite was two or three miles (between 3 and 5 kilometers) in diameter and hit the earth with an impact 200,000 times as powerful as that caused by the blast of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
The fact that shatter cones completely surround the Sudbury Basin tends to support the impact theory. These features are a peculiar conical form of fracture caused by tremendous shock waves that go through the rock, a characteristic of meteorite impact sites. Geologists have observed that there is more shatter-cone rock in the Sudbury Basin than in any other place on earth. This geological feature is so similar to that found on the surface of the moon that in 1971 and 1972 the Apollo mission astronauts from the United States, in preparation for their landing on the moon to examine its geological features, trained for a while in the Sudbury area.
Geologists now believe that, after the meteorite impact, melted rock oozed up from the earth’s mantle, carrying concentrations of nickel and copper minerals into the shattered crust. There they cooled and hardened into the huge ore masses that remained unknown and undiscovered until recent times.
The ore in the Sudbury Basin was actually found by accident. In August 1883, railway construction crews in the area blasted a right-of-way through solid rock. An observant blacksmith discovered what proved to be copper- and nickel-bearing minerals. Immediately, news stories of important copper discoveries began to be circulated and prospectors rushed into the area to stake mineral claims.
Several mines were started, but, to many, it seemed they would be short-lived. The smelting process then commonly used did not produce pure copper from this ore, but copper mixed with large quantities of nickel. At that time there were few uses for nickel and little demand for it. Indeed, it was then considered to be a troublesome rather than a valuable metal, because to separate copper from it with the then-known methods was difficult and costly. Interestingly, it was this fact that originally earned nickel its name.
More than 200 years ago some miners of Saxony in Europe tried smelting what they thought was copper ore, but which produced some unknown white metal instead of the copper they expected. Being superstitious and believing in spells and witchcraft, they concluded that Satan had cast a spell over their mine. Hence, they named the new metal “Old Nick’s Copper,” or, as they pronounced it in their language, Kupfernickel. Through the passage of years it became known simply as “nickel.”
The success of the new Sudbury mining developments seemed to be completely dependent on solving the metallurgy problems of economically separating the copper from the nickel. No one at that time knew much about such a process, and there had been little incentive to develop one. Total world use of nickel was relatively insignificant, being mostly for nickel coinage and nickel plating. Therefore, the future did not seem to be bright for the new mines. They contained vast quantities of ore that was rich in a metal for which there was, as yet, no satisfactory smelting and separation process. Also, there was no substantial market for the finished product.
New Process Discovered
Considerable experimenting led to the discovery that, by adding niter cake during the smelting of the ore, an economical separation of the two metals could be effected. The vexing problem was solved. This continued for many years to be a standard Canadian method for treating the unique Sudbury ores. It was, indeed, a technological triumph that would open the door to a whole new industry that would produce eventual wealth and benefits not even imagined at that time.
The North American nickel “industry” entered the 20th century revolving chiefly around two companies, one with a vast supply of the ore as a raw material and the other with a satisfactory method of separating the metals. The need to get together was obvious.
Through a succession of mergers and share exchanges beginning in 1902, there came into existence the giant industrial complex of corporations now known as the International Nickel Company of Canada, Limited, or Inco Limited. It is now Canada’s biggest mining firm and the world’s largest producer of nickel, delivering hundreds of millions of pounds (tens of millions of kilograms) of nickel yearly. Inco has proven ore reserves of over 400,000,000 tons. No less than 15 elements are recovered from its complex ores, including appreciable amounts of precious metals such as gold and platinum. It owns 19 mines in Canada and is represented in nearly a score of countries.
In more recent years, other companies have started nickel mining operations and this has increased the production of this metal for world use. One of the largest is Falconbridge Mines, Limited, incorporated in 1928 to develop a property examined years earlier by the famous American inventor-scientist Thomas Alva Edison. He had not been able to overcome certain technical problems, and abandoned the project. But Falconbridge succeeded, and today it is the heart of a mining and industrial empire that, like Inco, is truly international in scope. It is the second-largest employer in the Sudbury district.
Research Expands Market
To ensure a steady market for their increasing productivity, the nickel producers continue to spend vast sums of money in research to find more and more uses for nickel. No longer considered to be a nuisance by copper miners, it is often called the “wonder metal” or the “friendly metal.” Nickel is used in practically every industry that a person could name.
Nickel’s principal value lies in its alloying quality. Hence, it is seldom used in its pure state. Usually, varying amounts of nickel are added to other metals, imparting to them nickel’s unique properties of long-lasting, lustrous beauty, strength and resistance to corrosion and temperature. More than 3,000 nickel alloys are now commonly used in items ranging from stainless steel sinks to space ships.
Supersonic passenger travel is possible because of the nickel-content superalloys in jet engines. Nickel was used in a large number of the critical components in the Apollo 11 spaceship, helping to make possible the first manned landing on the moon in 1969. A nickel-stainless-steel plaque still remains on the moon, placed there by the astronauts to mark man’s first visit to a body in outer space.
This interesting metal is also finding increasing demand in construction as buildings grow taller. One nickel-steel alloy developed for constructional beams has the strength of conventional beams but weighs only one quarter as much.
Coinage provides an increasingly important example of nickel being used in its pure state. In Canada, for example, all coins, except the one-cent piece, are made of pure nickel. Nearly all the other nations use this metal in coinage either in its pure form or alloyed with another metal. One reason that countries are changing to nickel coinage is that the nickel coins last longer—proof of the toughness and wear-resistant qualities of the metal.
Effect on Environment
Many visitors to Sudbury and the immediate vicinity are heard to comment on how rocky and barren the area seems to be. Often they say that it resembles the surface of the moon. It is indeed “different,” with much of the land surface being scarred and desolate-looking. So there has been a price to pay for seeking riches in the rocks of the earth. It should be noted, however, that the denuding of the countryside was not caused entirely by the mining companies. Many years before mining began, lumbering activities triggered the process of turning the forest-clad hills to virtual barren lands. After the lumbermen had removed the great stands of pine, prospectors moved in and burned off the fallen slash and thin topsoil—sometimes indiscriminately—to expose the rock underneath and facilitate their search for mineral deposits.
Later, there followed outdoor heap roasting of the rich ores nearby at Copper Cliff, Ontario. The resulting sulphur-dioxide air pollution poured over the countryside, destroying the remaining trees and vegetation. Subsequent erosion brought about complete devastation by 1920. Since those often-reckless days, improved technology and a greater awareness of the need for environmental protection and preservation have resulted in the reduction of emission of noxious wastes. Limits on such emissions have now been set by government authorities.
Tangible evidence of this interest in environmental protection and reclamation is Inco’s “superstack,” which now dominates the Sudbury area skyline. Containing over 21,000 cubic yards (16,000 cubic meters) of concrete and rising to a height of 1,250 feet (381 meters), “superstack” represents an investment of $25 million. It minimizes ground-level concentrations of sulphur dioxide by keeping the gases aloft as long as possible and diluting them by horizontal and vertical dispersion. Gases are conducted to the stack through a steel flue system nearly two thirds of a mile (nearly one kilometer) long. This takes place at speeds up to 55 miles (88 kilometers) per hour and at a maximum temperature of 735 degrees Fahrenheit (390 degrees Celsius).
Proof of the effectiveness of the varied efforts to reduce pollution and reclaim damaged areas can be seen in the many hundreds of acres of grass and rye now flourishing on what were formerly vast dumps for waste products. Insects and animals are returning, while geese and ducks can be seen using the small ponds within sight of the smelter areas. It is good to see men making efforts to preserve the God-given natural beauty in return for material benefits from earth’s riches.
The development of more and more mines to produce nickel and the associated metals had a big impact on the people here, as well as on the environment. Millions of persons world wide have had their lives enriched by the development of some of the many uses of nickel. Are there yet other physical and chemical secrets in the rocks of earth’s crust? Time will tell.