Atomic Mass: 58.6934 amu
Melting Point: 1455°C
Boiling Point: 2730°C
You probably had no idea that Riddle, Oregon, a mere 92 miles by notoriously curvy roads from my home town, was once home to the only commercial Nickel mine in the United States. But it’s true! It was established in a fit of mild cold war-era corruption, as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Treasury leapt at the chance to manage and gradually assume ownership of a mining and smelting complex built on the government’s dime and the government’s Nickel both. The operation used some ingenious engineering to get the ore down off the heights of Nickel Mountain, but the ore quality was marginal and, once the subsidies ended and the mine was left to the tender mercies of the open market, it was doomed.
Why was the United States government so eager for domestic Nickel production as to cut corners in setting up such an iffy operation? As is so often the case with elemental metals, it’s all about the steel alloys. Nickel sees duty in a lot of steel and stainless steel alloys, where it adds strength and resistance to corrosion. In particular, it was needed for the alloys that were used to build parts of cold-war era military aircraft. Mr. Eisenhower knew what of he spoke when he warned us of the “military-industrial complex.”
And sure, some of that Nickel may have gone into nickels. Contrary to what you’ve probably been told, U.S. nickels are still cast from the same 75% Copper, 25% Nickel alloy as they have been since time immemorial, which is to say 1946. Because Nickel is an expensive commodity, the value of the metal in a Nickel is well over ten cents. Irony, on the other hand, is cheap. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a coin costing more than its face value to manufacture, because it’s not a single-use item. If a nickel gets spent 20 times on its path through the economy, it has represented a dollar’s worth of value. The only silly thing about nickels is just that we continue to bother with a coin to represent such a nominal amount of wealth. But I digress.
A silverish metal -- the color of a nickel, in fact -- Nickel has been used in metallurgy for millennia, often being mistaken for silver or copper, or just as part and parcel of the iron with which it is often found. It was “discovered,” or at least identified as an element, by a very brainy Swedish guy named Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, the “father of modern mineralogy,” way back in 1751. He was 29 at the time, and doing more for science than you are.
Earth, the human home planet, is thought to be somewhere around two to three percent Nickel. That makes it roughly the fifth most common element we’ve got, after Iron, Oxygen, Silicon, and Magnesium, and running about even with Sulfur. Most of it is way, way down towards the very middle of the planetary sphere. Want to make a killing on the rising price of Nickel? Just dig.