Nickel Mining and Indonesia Biodiversity

In the push for decarbonization and the transition to electrified transportation, Nickel has emerged as a key metal in batteries. Indonesia, having the world’s biggest reserves of ore, has risen as a major player in the nickel industry. In 2014, the country produced 100.000 tonnes of nickel per year. In 2022, Indonesia’s production surged to 1,4 million tonnes.

Forecasts suggest the production capacity reaching 5 million tonnes per year within the next 5 years. According to Macquarie, an Australian financial firm, by 2025 Indonesia could supply 60% of the world’s nickel, up from around half today. This rapid expansion has led to challenges in maintaining sustainable mining practices and environmental responsibility.

Indonesian nickel mining activities are concentrated in Sulawesi and the Maluku Islands, located in a region known as Wallacea. A region named after English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who explored it in the 1860s. Wallacea is a biodiversity hotspot due to its unique evolutionary history, fostered by millions of years of geographical isolation.

Nickel is extracted from two main types of ores: laterite and sulfide deposits. Laterite ore is abundant and near the surface. Primarily found in Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Caledonia. Low cost of extraction. Sulfide ore is mainly found in Canada, Russia, and Australia. Typically deep underground and with higher extraction costs.

The two types of ore necessitate distinct extraction processes, resulting in different intermediate products such as ferronickel, nickel pig iron, and nickel matte. Ferronickel (~80% iron and 20% nickel) is commonly used as an alloying agent in steel production. Ferronickel production uses the energy-intensive Rotary Kiln Electric Furnace (RKEF), a pyrometallurgical method suited for the saprolite (laterite family) ore only.

RKEF has been the most used if not only used method in Indonesia so far. To such an extent that the saprolite ore is now almost depleted in Indonesia. For pure nickel recovery, hydrometallurgical process like high-pressure acid leach (HPAL), followed by solvent extraction – electrowinning (SX-EW) can be used.

HPAL is a more recent technology and offers 3 advantages. It can also process limonite (RKEF cannot), the laterite ore which is now most of Indonesia’s remaining nickel deposit. It can directly produce the high-purity nickel needed in batteries.

It uses much less energy than RKEF, and so produces less carbon. But HPAL process produces a great deal of toxic slurry, a waste product that is difficult and expensive to dispose of. As the nickel industry continues to expand, it is crucial to address the environmental and social impacts, striving for a more sustainable approach.

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