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  • BIR World Recycling Convention - Stainless Steel & Special Alloys Committee: Electric vehicle battery market to drive nickel use growth

BIR World Recycling Convention - Stainless Steel & Special Alloys Committee: Electric vehicle battery market to drive nickel use growth

  • 02 June 2021

The outlook for scrap in a shifting nickel-use landscape occupied much of the discussion at the latest online meeting of the BIR Stainless Steel & Special Alloys Committee, hosted yesterday by its Chairman Joost van Kleef of Netherlands-based Oryx Stainless BV.

Figures from guest speaker Olivier Masson, Senior Analyst at Roskill, reflected the continuing emergence of China and Indonesia as the lynch-pins of global stainless steel developments. Given the jump in their combined share of total stainless production from 52% in 2015 to 64% last year and also their continued heavy reliance on primary nickel units, the global scrap ratio in stainless steel production slid to around 37% in 2020 from nearer 42% five years earlier.

The pandemic-related 2.4% contraction in global stainless steel consumption last year was actually smaller than the declines witnessed at the time of the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, explained Mr Masson. Steep year-on-year falls in the USA (-17%), Europe (-9%) and Japan (-6%) were largely counterbalanced by consumption growth of more than 6% in China on the back of its government’s metals-intensive stimulus plan.

Roskill was envisaging “a gradual increase in the scrap use in China” but only “a very, very small one” because of “the increased availability of NPI”. If China were to “put a cost” on mills’ carbon emissions and on the environmental footprint of raw material production processes, this could bring greater use of scrap, said Mr Masson in answer to a question from Uwe Dierkes of Siegfried Jacob Metallwerke GmbH & Co. KG in Germany.

The stainless steel industry was generally “recovering well” from the severe impacts of COVID in 2020 and was likely to remain the leading nickel demand driver, while the battery market - notably for electric vehicles - was set to become the second-largest user of nickel units “by a significant margin”, Mr Masson asserted.

Fellow guest speaker Alina Racu, Nickel Market Analyst at Nornickel, anticipated that long-term growth in nickel demand would come from the battery sector, driven by “green” legislation. She estimated that nickel units required in battery production would surge by a factor of four or five in the years to 2030. Despite a tumultuous COVID-hit 2020, global electric vehicle sales had exceeded all expectations, even doubling in Europe owing to green recovery incentives.

The market was showing concern over the availability of suitable nickel units to meet this huge demand increase from the battery sector. Potential sources listed by Ms Racu included exchange stocks, high-pressure acid leach extraction projects and conversion of nickel matte to high-grade Ni, while increased NPI production would create a usage shift in nickel units, it was contended. Recycling of spent vehicle batteries “can bring some extra units into the market”, she added, “but current volumes are still very small.” It would take a further 10 to 20 years for significant quantities to start to become available, she added.

Ms Racu also anticipated a continuing recovery in the stainless steel market, to the extent of forecasting that production in the Europe, Middle East and Asia region could well return to 2019 levels this year whereas the same was unlikely to happen in the USA, Japan and India.