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What is Nickel? - Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Nathan Crawford

Nathan, a PhD chemist, has taught chemistry and physical science courses.

This lesson focuses on the element nickel. The location of nickel on the periodic table, its atomic structure, chemical, and physical properties are discussed in general terms. This lesson also includes selected applications for nickel that are significant to modern currency and manufacturing.

'If I had a nickel….' In the United States this phrase conjures images of coins, specifically the $ 0.05 coin. Have you ever wondered why Americans use the word nickel to describe a coin? The origin of this phrase is easily traced to the name of the metal that gave the coins their silvery appearance during the 19th century. That metal is nickel.

An American nickel coin
An American nickel coin

Nickel Basics

Nickel is an element, a substance that consists of only one type of atom, located in Group 10 of the periodic table of the elements. This location places nickel within the region of the periodic table, which includes elements in Groups 3-12, called the transition metals. Nickel has an atomic number of 28, meaning that it contains 28 protons in its nucleus. The number of positively charged protons in nickel's nucleus means that neutral nickel atoms have 28 total electrons.

Nickel on the periodic table of the elements
Nickel on the periodic table of the elements
Pure nickel
Pure nickel

The outermost, or valence, electrons occupy cloud-like regions, or orbitals, and the two valence electrons of nickel atoms can be lost relatively easily to form two common ions. The loss of a single electron results in an ion, defined as an atom that has lost or gained electrons, with a +1 charge. The loss of the remaining valence electron results in an ion with a +2 charge. The proper way of noting the charges on these ions is to use the systematic name for each ion, nickel (I) for the +1 ion and nickel (II) for the +2 ion. The resulting ions easily form ionic bonds with negatively charged ions or covalent bonds with other molecules to form brightly colored compounds, known as coordination complexes.

Nickel coordination complexes in solution
Nickel coordination complexes in solution

Nickel in the Natural World

The origins of nickel are, quite literally, stellar. Nickel forms during the nuclear fusion processes in the heart of massive stars where the incredible temperatures and pressures cause the nuclei of lighter elements to fuse together. When massive stars become unstable at the end of their life cycles, the resulting massive explosion, also known as a supernova, scatters the nickel atoms into the large clouds of gas and dust, or nebula.

A nebula resulting from supernova
A nebula resulting from supernova

On Earth, nickel can be found in a wide variety of sources within the earth's crust and is a crucial component of the earth's core. Deep inside the earth, nickel is mixed with iron to make up the molten liquid outer core as well as within the solid inner core. Within the crust, nickel is found mixed with iron or copper in economically valuable mineral deposits called ores.

Nickel ore known as nickeline
Nickel ore known as nickeline

Nickel in Our Modern World

One vitally important application for nickel in our modern world is the inclusion of this metal within mixtures of other metals, also called alloys. Stainless steel, for example, requires nickel to be added to a mixture of iron, carbon and other metals. Nickel can also be mixed with more costly metals, such as copper, silver, and gold, to form less costly alloys that possess greater durability. Therefore, the usage of nickel within coinage is still a crucial part of the monetary systems of many countries.

Stainless steel
Stainless steel

Nickel is used in another important application that uses its chemical properties, catalysts. Catalysts are substances that improve the likelihood of a reaction by lowering the energy required to initiate the reaction without being consumed during the reaction. Nickel catalysts are used in a wide variety of important industrial reactions, ranging from the hydrogenation of vegetable oil for the food industry to the production of pharmaceuticals.

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