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The 'magic number' you need to develop a nickel project

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With nickel prices spiking last month to six-year highs and EV automobile projected to go parabolic, the industry is starting to realize there is not enough metal available.

On Friday Kore Mining's VP of exploration, Michael Tucker, joined Kitco Roundtable podcast with correspondent Paul Harris, editor Neils Christensen and mining audiences manager Michael McCrae.

Last month LME nickel traded at a six-year high, hitting $19,689 a tonne before falling back.

Tucker said nickel is a key material for electric vehicles, and the metal is expected to have one of the highest multiples of current demand.

If the battery tech stays the same and EV adoption continues apace, Tucker predicted unprecedented demand: an increase of 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes per year by 2025 and upwards of 1,000,000 tonnes per year by 2030-2035.

On top of that, batteries are also picky about their nickel. Only Class 1 or 99.9% pure nickel is usable.

Until recent price spikes, years of low nickel prices resulted in lack of projects.

"The sad story is that we haven't done a great job as explorers looking for nickel sulfide deposits in the last 20 years," said Tucker. Nickel deposit types of roughly divide into sulfide and laterite deposit types. The nickel from sulfides is usually easier to extract and found further north. Laterites are usually near the equator.

Projects can't advance without better prices. In 2018, Yukon-based Nickel Creek Platinum said what it needed to advance its project.

"The company believes it wouldn't be prudent to complete a PEA [preliminary economic assessment] until the emergence of improved financial market conditions and a stronger commodity price environment, and notionally not until nickel prices settle in the range of at least US$9.00 to US$11.00 per pound," wrote Diane Garrett, President and CEO Nickel Creek Platinum in a 2018 news release.

Last month's price hike fell short of $9 a pound.

Size of the deposit matters, too. When Tucker was exploring for nickel, his economic baseline was 100,000 tonnes contained nickel at around 1.75% to 2%.

"Because that's something that'll work really well in an underground environment at most nickel prices," said Tucker.

"And if you're looking for the same thing in open-pit scenario, we really liked 0.65% with the same amount of contained nickel...that seems to be a bit of a magic number for things getting developed or not developed in the sulfide space."

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