The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has escalated in recent days. In addition to the surge in natural gas and crude oil prices, the conflict may also impact the supply of non-ferrous metals including aluminum, nickel, and copper. According to TrendForce, nickel is a key upstream raw material for the manufacture of electric vehicle power batteries and mainly used in the production of ternary cathode materials. In 2021, global nickel mine production was approximately 2.7 million tons, originating primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Russia. Russian nickel production accounts for approximately 9% of the world’s total (including low, medium, and high-grade nickel), ranking third globally. At present, the market penetration rate of new energy vehicles is accelerating and ternary power batteries account for nearly half of power battery market share, which signals strengthening demand for upstream raw material nickel for automotive power batteries. Although Russian nickel exports remain unaffected for the time being, if the situation on the ground between Russia and Ukraine continues to deteriorate, global nickel supply may be impacted in the short term, pushing up nickel prices, and further increase cost pressures on end product markets such as the electric vehicle industry.
TrendForce states that in the medium to long term, since the lion’s share of new nickel ore smelting and processing projects have been located in Indonesia in recent years and Indonesia’s nickel ore production accounted for approximately 37% of the world’s total production in 2021, Indonesia’s concentrated production of nickel is expected to improve supply and demand in 2H22. TrendForce also emphasizes, regarding the export ban on mines announced by Indonesia last year, this ban only prohibits the export of raw ore and does not prohibit Chinese companies such as Zhejian Huayou Cobalt, Tsingshan Holding Group, Lygend Resources, and GEM from investing in the processing end of nickel mines in Indonesia. Therefore, smelting nickel ore and highly processed products are not affected by the export ban.
From the perspective of suppliers, among the top five nickel ore manufacturers in the world, Russian manufacturer Norilsk supplies approximately 9% of the world’s raw nickel materials, or 90% of overall Russian production, and its high-grade nickel production accounts for 22% of the world’s total (Note: according to nickel content, nickel materials can be divided into high-grade nickel, medium-grade nickel, and low-grade nickel with high-grade nickel referring to Ni content ≥ 10%), ranking first in the world. China’s Jinchuan Group ranks second at 17%, followed by Switzerland’s Glencore at 13%, and Brazil’s Vale S.A. at 12%. TrendForce believes, looking at the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, if Europe and the United States impose sanctions on Russia, a change in the flow of Russian nickel may occur due to the high concentration of production and processing by Norilsk.
TrendForce states, at present, high-nickel-based ternary cathode materials (primarily referring to ternary materials with high nickel content such as NCM622, NCM811, and NCA) rely on the two advantages of higher energy density and less dependence on the precious metal cobalt as a raw material, its market share of ternary cathode materials has increased rapidly, 10% in 2019 to nearly 40% in 2021. The development of high nickel content means that consumption demand for nickel corresponding to each ton of ternary cathode materials has increased. With the acceleration of the penetration rate of new energy vehicles in China, Europe, and the United States, the market demand for lithium power batteries is strong and overall nickel inventories continue to decline. At present, the global refined nickel inventory is only 100,000 tons. In the context of tight supply and increasing demand, inferring from the Chinese market where new energy vehicles accounted for 53% of the global market in 2021, the spot market price of electrolytic nickel in China reaching RMB130,000 to RMB150,000 per ton in 2021, and prices jumping in early 2022 to RMB160,000 to 170,000 per ton, the possibility of continued pricing spikes in the future cannot be ruled out.