Roskill: Nickel sulfate to be the key growth area of nickel demand over the next decade; driven by EVs
As a crucial raw material in Li-ion batteries used to electrify vehicles, a significant volume of nickel sulfate will be required in the decade ahead from the booming automotive sector. In a newly-released report (Nickel Sulphate Outlook to 2029, 3rd Edition) on the nickel sulfate industry, Roskill forecasts that growth from electric vehicles (EVs) will increase the market share of nickel in batteries against the well-established stainless steel industry, making it the key growth area for the nickel demand.
A couple of years ago, the market for nickel sulfate was largely driven by the plating industry and non-Li-ion battery applications such as NiMH and NiCd batteries with stagnated y-o-y growth.
From 2014, owing to the mass production of Li-ion batteries and the popularity of ternary cathode materials (composed of nickel, cobalt, manganese or aluminium) in portable electronics and electric vehicles, the consumption of nickel sulfate has markedly increased as the requirement from Li-ion batteries has grown over twentyfold in the past decade.
Despite the rapid growth in recent years, as of 2019, total nickel sulfate consumed still only represented a trivial part of the total consumption of nickel, which explains why such refined chemical product only appeared on the nickel radar recently.
Over the next decade, Roskill forecasts an explosive growth rate for the consumption of nickel in batteries (mostly in the form of nickel sulfate). Such demand growth will not only be supported by the uptake of EVs and their larger energy capacity, but also by the greater use of nickel-rich cathode materials to improve energy density of automotive batteries. As a result, Roskill’s report shows that battery applications may have the potential to be the next largest application of nickel after stainless steel by 2029.
However, Roskill cautions, the road will be a bumpy one. Primary nickel demand from the battery sector grew more slowly in 2019 than in 2018 due mainly to lower EV sales growth following the Chinese government’s withdrawal of EV subsidies. The long-term outlook for nickel demand in batteries remains strong, but over the shorter-term more sluggish EV demand growth and a slower-than-expected adoption of NCM811 technologies will keep consumption growth rates in check.
To meet the forecast demand levels, a significant volume of new nickel sulfate units will need to be produced from primary nickel feedstock sources such as intermediates and Class I nickel, as well as from recycling of various residues and scrap materials.
While in the past, producers fully integrated from mining to refining played a major role in the market, much of the supply growth in recent years can be attributed to non-integrated processors relying on externally-sourced feedstocks. As such, the future availability and suitability of feedstocks for the battery industry will be essential to the production of nickel sulfate.
Nickel sulfate can be produced by using a variety of feedstock material, such as crude nickel sulfate, briquettes, mixed sulfide precipitate, mixed hydroxide precipitate, carbonyl pellets and powder or recycled materials. Production of these feedstock materials is going to have to grow to satisfy the growing demand for nickel sulfate by the battery industry.
In such a fast-moving market volatility is inevitable. The price for nickel sulfate, typically in the form of a premium over the underlining nickel metal price, has become more volatile in recent years as a supply-demand mismatch has become less uncommon given the cyclical nature of major applications such as automotive and portable electronics sectors. Recent policy changes in the EV space compounded with the emerging uncertainty in global macroeconomy under the COVID-19 pandemic may bring more volatility to the nickel sulfate market, Roskill said.