Nickel is a naturally occurring element that exists in all soils and ranks 24th in the abundance of metals found in the earth's crust. It is a hard, tough, greyish-white metallic element and is thought to be an essential element for many plants and animals, and, many experts believe, for humans as well. It has many desirable properties, including resistance to corrosion in both acidic and basic environments, high strength over a wide temperature range, and a pleasing appearance. Nickel's earliest use was possibly as an unknown element in an ancient Chinese white metal alloy (paktong) used in tableware, candlesticks and other ornamental and household articles. The Swedish scientist Axel Cronstedt discovered the existence of nickel in 1751.
The major contemporary use for nickel is as an alloying agent. Nickel is present in some 3000 different alloys that are used in more than 250 000 end-use applications. The most popular alloy in which nickel is used is stainless steel (see Iron and Steel Industry). Stainless steel usually contains between 8-10% nickel and accounts for nearly 70% of all nickel consumed in the world. Nickel-containing alloys are used in a wide variety of applications, including chemical and food-processing equipment, household goods, surgical equipment and aircraft engines, and is becoming the overwhelming choice for environmental equipment.
The presence of nickel and copper minerals near the present city of Greater Sudbury, Ont, was known as early as 1856, but it was not until 1883, during construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, that the significance of the discovery was recognized. By 1890 most ore bodies in the district, comprising the world's largest source of nickel, had been located. In 1993, a large nickel deposit was discovered near Voisey Bay, Labrador. The Voisey Bay deposit is believed to contain over 100 million t of nickel-, copper- and cobalt-containing ore and is thought by many to be the lowest-cost undeveloped nickel deposit in the world.
Canada is the world's second-largest producer of nickel (Russia is first). Other major producers are New Caledonia and Australia. Principal markets for Canadian nickel are the US, western Europe and Japan. Canada's domestic market accounts for less than 2% of world consumption. The principal Canadian producers are Inco Ltd and Falconbridge Ltd. Inco has integrated mine, mill, smelter and refinery operations at Sudbury and Thompson, Man. Falconbridge is also an integrated producer with mines, a mill and a smelter at Greater Sudbury, Ont, and a refinery in Norway. A third producer, Sherritt International, operates mines in Cuba and a hydrometallurgical processing facility in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.
All nickel mines in Canada are sulphide-type deposits, most of which are mined underground as opposed to open cast. After the ore is mined, it is sent to the concentrator where it is crushed and the sulphide minerals concentrated by flotation. The concentrate is smelted to produce nickel matte, which is sent to a refinery where cathodes, anodes, pellets, powders and other products are made.