According to The Australian Financial Review, strong interest in a new battery-grade nickel product Western Areas plans to produce reinforces suggestions the growing electric vehicles sector could deliver a "renaissance" for the flagging nickel market, Western Areas managing director Dan Lougher says.
Western Areas started work in the June quarter on its mill recovery enhancement project, which plans to produce a high-grade nickel concentrate product from its Forrestania nickel operations in Western Australia from the March quarter of 2018.
"Last week we had conversations with three separate Chinese groups," he said.
Mr Lougher said the Chinese parties were keen on securing product from about 2020, reinforcing the view of UBS analysts in a research note last week that from about 2020 "electric vehicles could offer a renaissance for the nickel market".
The analysts said the production of about 15 million electric vehicles in 2025 would create between 300,000 and 900,000 tonnes a year of additional demand for nickel, or a 10 to 40 per cent increase, depending on the type of chemistry used to create the battery cathodes, which is where the nickel is used.
The battery boom could deliver price premiums to nickel producers able to produce high-grade nickel products, such as ASX-listed Independence Group and Western Areas, UBS said, rather than the ferronickel and nickel pig iron producers that account for about half of global supply.
At present about two-thirds of total demand for nickel is for the production of stainless steel, which can tolerate lower grade nickel.
"Only about 50 per cent of world nickel mine production is potentially suitable to become a battery product," UBS said.
"These producers of high-grade nickel products could potentially benefit from the emergence of price premiums vs ferronickel and nickel pig iron products as battery demand increases."
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