Nickel is a ubiquitous metal commonly found in both home and industry. It exists in a variety of chemical forms, from naturally occurring ores to synthetically produced nickel carbonyl. Elemental nickel is a white, lustrous metal, the name being derived from the German word “kupfernickel” or “devil’s copper.” Swedish chemist Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstedt first identified kupfernickel in 1751 in a mineral known as niccolite, and named it nickel in 1754. The fifth most abundant element on Earth, Nickel comprises 0.008% of the Earth’s crust and is found in diverse locations, ranging from meteorites and soil to bodies of fresh- and saltwater.
First produced by the Chinese, nickel has been used as a component in a variety of metal alloys for more than 1,700 years. The first malleable nickel was produced by Joseph Wharton following the American Civil War. Wharton went on to sell bulk quantities of nickel to the United States government for the minting of 3-cent coins, and later donated the equivalent of 3.3 million of these coins to help fund what is known today as the Wharton School of Business.44 The modern United States 5 cent piece, the “nickel,” is actually only approximately 25% nickel by weight, and all currently United States coins except the penny are made of nickel-containing alloys.7
Nickel ores typically consist of accumulations of nickel sulfide minerals of relatively low nickel content. Although there are a variety of technical methods for extracting nickel from ore, one method of special note was developed in 1890 by Ludwig Mond, who is credited with the discovery of nickel carbonyl (also called nickel tetracarbonyl). The Mond process for the extraction of nickel involves passing carbon monoxide over smelted ore. This creates nickel carbonyl, which then decomposes at high temperatures to produce purified nickel and carbon monoxide.44
There have been 2 notable occupational disasters associated with exposure to nickel carbonyl. The Gulf Oil Company refinery incident in Port Austin, Texas, in 1953 resulted in more than 100 workers’ being exposed, with 31 hospitalizations and 2 deaths. The Toa Gosei Chemical company incident in Nagoya, Japan, in 1969, resulted in 156 male workers’ being exposed to nickel carbonyl, with 137 developing signs and symptoms but no fatalities reported.44
Currently, most nickel is imported into the United States from other nickel-rich countries, such as Canada, Russia, and Australia. After a more than 30-year period in which there was no domestic nickel mining in the United States, there is now one active US nickel mine: the Eagle Mine opened in Michigan in 2014, and produced 25,000 metric tons of nickel in 2016.53
Nickel is a siderophoric material that forms naturally occurring alloys with iron, a property that has made it useful for many centuries in the production of coins, tools, and ...