Nickel production has always been relatively expensive. In all the excitement of the China commodity boom up to 2014, nickel projects suffered from very high capital intensities—the project capital cost divided by the nameplate contained nickel capacity.
These costs were then compounded by ramp-up issues that have seen many large-scale projects fail to ever reach nameplate capacity, driving up their realised capital intensity. Subsequently, part of the legacy of these projects is that few large projects were approved. The exception has been new RKEF process capacity for producing low grade NPI in China and then Indonesia. With forecast demand growth expected to be boosted by the rise of electric vehicle batteries—and the quality of finished nickel products required—is the accepted capital intensity going to rise?   Horses for Courses The viability of nickel projects can be slightly confused due to the range of products produced and the vast array of processing routes to get there. Nickel products for producing stainless steel do not have the same requirements as nickel to feed a nickel sulphate process. Additionally, the nickel ore type being process will also impact the capital costs of the processing plant. A higher capital intensity can be tolerated if they are producing a higher quality/more value-added product—a key consideration as producers increasingly look to supply the battery sector.