Fact Sheet 2012–3024
Nickel is a silvery-white metal that is used mainly to make stainless steel and other alloys stronger and better able to withstand extreme temperatures and corrosive environments. Nickel was first identified as a unique element in 1751 by Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, a Swedish mineralogist and chemist. He originally called the element kupfernickel because it was found in rock that looked like copper (kupfer) ore and because miners thought that “bad spirits” (nickel) in the rock were making it difficult for them to extract copper from it.
Approximately 80 percent of the primary (not recycled) nickel consumed in the United States in 2011 was used in alloys, such as stainless steel and superalloys. Because nickel increases an alloy’s resistance to corrosion and its ability to withstand extreme temperatures, equipment and parts made of nickel-bearing alloys are often used in harsh environments, such as those in chemical plants, petroleum refineries, jet engines, power generation facilities, and offshore installations. Medical equipment, cookware, and cutlery are often made of stainless steel because it is easy to clean and sterilize.
All U.S. circulating coins except the penny are made of alloys that contain nickel. Nickel alloys are increasingly being used in making rechargeable batteries for portable computers, power tools, and hybrid and electric vehicles. Nickel is also plated onto such items as bathroom fixtures to reduce corrosion and provide an attractive finish.
First posted March 2012
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Boland, M.A., 2012, Nickel—Makes stainless steel strong: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2012–3024, 2 p., available at https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2012/3024/.