Battery nickel price regains premium over metal

Nickel sulphate market not too gloomy. Image: BHP Nickel West nickel mining complex in Western Australia.

Much like prices for cobalt, lithium and graphite, nickel feedstock for battery manufacture ended 2019 on a weak note, as a retreat in Chinese electric vehicle sales in the second half of the year and slower than expected transition to nickel-rich battery chemistries hurt demand.

Battery supply chain and megafactory tracker Benchmark Mineral Intelligence’s new nickel assessment details a nearly 9% fall in domestic Chinese prices for nickel sulphate during December.

BHP decided last year to hold onto its Nickel West operations after many attempts to offload it, and is spending hundreds of millions of dollars switching its Australian operations to battery-grade production

The midpoint price for December was pegged at CNY 26,000 per tonne (~$3,770 at today’s rate) for >22% Ni ex-works material, but Benchmark says the price rebounded towards the end of the month on restocking.

At times in the third quarter sulphate actually sold at a discount to class 1 metal in China and for the year, prices are still more than 5% for the better.

Prices for nickel sulphate in the rest of the world also declined at the end of last year, but premiums over LME metal prices were steady at the equivalent of $2,000–$2,450 per tonne (>22% Ni CIF Asia), according to Benchmark data.

Nickel metal traded on the LME went on a wild ride in 2019, from $10,715 a tonne at the start of January to above $18,000 in October, before ending the year $4,000 below its peak.

Benchmark says its sources noted premiums for nickel sulphate are expected to remain relatively stable during the first half of 2020 on expectations of further delays at BHP’s Nickel West project in Australia.  

BHP decided last year to hold onto its Nickel West operations after many attempts to offload it, and is spending hundreds of millions of dollars switching its Australian operations to battery-grade production.

Last year, less than 10% of nickel ended up in EV batteries, with 70% of supply going into making stainless steel. Global nickel production is less than 2.5 million tonnes per annum.

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