As the production of nickel is only the first step in a cycle of use and re-use, there cannot be a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of nickel per se. The Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) of nickel products, however, becomes an input for all product or system LCAs that use nickel in some form. Life Cycle Assessments that compare two products or systems, one of which depends on the presence of nickel, demonstrate the economic and environmental benefits of using nickel during the end-of-life management / recycling phases.
For some products and systems, the presence or absence of nickel LCI data would make little or no difference to the LCA outcomes because the amount of nickel used is so small or the burdens (e.g., energy use, carbon and other emissions to air, water and soils) associated with other inputs and occurring during the use phase are so large that the burdens associated with the nickel become insignificant.
There are, however, products for which nickel is an important material component and the environmental assessment of those products will significantly reflect the presence of nickel:
- nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries for hybrid vehicle batteries (download a pdf here)
- cordless power tools that depend on nickel-cadmium batteries (see here)
- nickel-containing stainless steels (download a pdf here)
The LCA on NiMH batteries is publically available and addresses an end-use of nickel that is of increasing interest and importance. The comparison is between two Toyota products: the Prius II (now replaced by the Prius III with additional increases in fuel efficiency) and the Corolla with an internal combustion engine (ICE). The focus of the study was on battery recycling and very supportive of hybrid versus ICE but the fuel savings could not be ignored:
Cordless power tools offer important benefits in efficiency and productivity but for which the end-of-life management of the nickel-cadmium batteries is of environmental and policy importance. This LCA is not publicly available.
The gate-to-gate LCA on nickel-containing stainless steels is available to interested qualified (that is to say, competent in the use and understanding of LCA) individuals or organisations that apply for access to the data.
There are two additional studies of interest:
"The Environmental Impact of Disposable versus Rechargeable Batteries for Consumer use" (see here) by David Parsons of the University of Southern Queensland and published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. Note that the publisher charges a fee for the download of the full article. There is a good summary, however, and the main conclusions are:
Analysis results were overwhelmingly in favour of the rechargeable battery option. This was true for every impact criteria studied and for less than optimistic scenarios of battery use such as significant shelf life or high discharge rates.
Given the present very large market for disposable batteries in Australia, there is a need for education of the consumer population and, to a lesser extent, industry, of the environmental and economic advantages of moving to rechargeable batteries.
"UNIROSS Study on the Environmental Impact of Batteries" (see here). This study was performed by Bio Intelligence Services for UNIROSS, a designer, manufacturer and distributor of rechargeable batteries. The comparison of rechargeable batteries with alkaline batteries for consumer use suggests that, for a given quantity of energy produced (1 kWH), rechargeable batteries can have as much as 32 times less environmental impact and even under less optimal conditions - not everyone uses rechargeable batteries in ways that exploit their advantages or maximise their life - the environmental performance gap between the two battery types remains very large.
Other LCAs with high relevance to nickel will be added to this page as they become available.