Nickel’s Carbon Challenge – understanding the relationship between nickel source and carbon intensity

By Laurens Tijsseling, Lyle Trytten, Robert Pell, Phoebe Whattoff, Rohin Shah

Nickel is a key element in many commercially available lithium-ion batteries. Nickel’s allure lies in its high energy density, potential for lower lifetime impacts, and suitability for various applications. Given its high performance metrics, it is a cornerstone ingredient to decarbonisation efforts and is in incredibly high demand globally. However, it is vital to ensure the environmental sustainability of nickel production and making informed decisions to reduce impacts throughout the supply chain.


The outline

What you will gain from this paper

“Nickel’s Carbon Challenge” explains the relationship between nickel source and carbon intensity. The metal can be found in a range of different ore bodies and can be processed to battery quality products in a wide variety of energy intensive and chemically complex ways. This means that in the lens of life cycle thinking this single commodity can have variable environmental impacts, depending on many different factors. In this paper we demonstrate the scale of this variability and interpret supply chain environmental hotspots. As the demand for such products continues to rise, collective action across the supply chain is vital for sustainable growth, necessitating continuous monitoring and analysis of the environmental impact of different production routes.

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This specific white paper is focused on nickel.

The range of supply chains to produce nickel sulfate

Nickel can have complex supply chains. Refined nickel production can be split into Class I (nominally pure nickel metal) and Class II products, with several intermediates used in different process routes. Intermediates and Class I and II products can be converted to nickel sulfate hexahydrate, the battery industry product of choice.

LCA and measuring beyond just climate change

LCAs can quantify the environmental impacts of a production process or manufacturing a product and account for direct impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions from the process and embodied impacts of the necessary energy, chemicals, raw materials and transportation. This latter aspect is more important for production routes with higher reagents and energy mineral use. It is important to note that LCA covers a broad range of environmental impact categories that should be considered.

The ranging climate change impact of nickel sulfate

The study's results indicate a wide range of climate change impacts per kilogram of nickel in nickel sulfate hexahydrate. Sulfide resources allow for the lowest climate change impact nickel products, and laterite resources generally have a higher climate change impact.

The need for representative LCA data

This study has shown that for each major process technology for producing battery-grade nickel products to battery-grade nickel products, it is not appropriate to assume an average climate change impact. Understanding process technology, resource characteristics, and energy sources associated with a unique nickel supply chain is critical to understanding the exact climate change impact of that supply chain.


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