Big Nickel – By James H. Gray (Maclean’s – October 1, 1947) – Part 1

Inco Advertising 1946This brave New World of ours may be bringing the world-order architects down with the jitters, but no one is going to convince Mr. and Mrs. Job Public that it doesn’t have the gaudiest surface glitter they have ever seen.

Never before have so many automobiles been loaded down so heavily with so much nickel plating. The stores are filling up with nickel-plated tasters and electrical goods, nickel-plated furniture, nickel-plated utensils and fishing rods and gadgets of infinite assortment and complexity. And in tune with the glistening motif of the times, the merchandisers are lifting the faces of their store fronts and prettying them up with nickel plate, aluminum and chromium.

That’s just the first verse. Under the hood of your new car, in the works of your new radio, in the kitchen of your restaurant and under he concrete floor of your cellar, in airplanes and plows, in power plants and in nail files, in skyscrapers and in dental bridgework, there is more nickel hidden away than you can shake a stick at.

World wars, peacetime industry, and the bumper on your car, depend on a vast operation with a little name – Inco.

All this glitter comes from a hole in the ground in Northern Ontario and a deposit of dark grey rock called copper-nickel ore. Strategically, this fabulous nickel deposit is one of Canada’s greatest assets. Given a chance, Hitler would willingly have traded the whole Silesian basin, and thrown in Hermann Goering and Dr. Goebbels to boot, for a year’s possession of the Sudbury basin.

During the first world war the Sudbury ore yielded 200 million pounds of nickel for allied armaments. During the second, it turned out more than one and a half billion pounds a year. The war is over, yet so great is the demand for nickel today that plans are being made for expansion of the Copper Cliff smelter, which is already the largest smelter of its kind in the British Empire.

More Than Meets the Eye

The shiny stuff that that gives the new cars their blinding glint isn’t nickel at all, though, it is often identified as such by the customers. It’s chromium, or other plating material. Nickel is the lackluster, silver-colored undercoating you see when, as sometimes happens, the chromium peels off; without it the chrome wouldn’t adhere to the steel. Important though it is, the plating trade is not the biggest market for nickel. Top of the heap is the steelmaking industry, the mills and foundries that turn out the raw materials for railways and automobiles.

The number of nickel-using alloys has now passed the 3,000 mark. By adding pinches of nickel, steel is made harder, more impervious to wear. It gives iron and aluminum strength. It resists acid, rust and corrosion and makes stainless steel possible. In short, it’s a sort of Mr. Fixit of the metallurgical world. Don’t believe your eyes for you seldom see or feel the stuff. You only know it is present by the way other metals behave.

The foundation of all this, the Gargantuan operation of the International Nickel Company of Canada centering around Sudbury, is both visible and feelable. Yet, there too, more is hidden than meets the eye. On the four-mile drive out from Sudbury to Copper Cliff, the gigantic smokestacks of the smelter, the huge mill and the ever-expanding mountains of slag waste combine to hint at the size of the operation. But few of the 10,000 men who produce the stuff are in sight. They are never visible as industrial armies such as are seen streaming through factory gates in Toronto, Montreal or Windsor.

Instead of men by the thousands, there are men by twos and threes and sixes, scattered over some hundreds of square miles above and below the ground. Next to the 500 by 400-foot tankroom at the Copper Cliff refinery, the most deserted looking place in the area is the vast open-pit mine at Frood. Into this hole more than a mile long, 250 feet deep and an average of 640 feet across, the Empire State building could be toppled on its side without impeding operations.

Every day at noon a high explosive charge tears loose 12,000 tons of rock from the 240-foot wide copper-nickel ore body. Yet there you may see only half a dozen diamond drillers, an equal number of dirves of 35-ton Diesel trucks, two or three electric shovel operators – and almost no one else.

But the labor of a thousand groups of two and three here, there and everywhere produces 22,000 tons of dark grey ore every day – and in wartime daily production sometimes rose to 30,000 tons. It comes not from one mine but from seven – two open pits and five underground operations, the farthest of which, the Levack, is 30 miles away from the main base of operations at Copper Cliff. Here in what is virtually a company town are located the mill, smelter, copper refinery and offices. Dispersed at an even greater distance is the plant at Port Colborne, Ont., 260 miles due south on Lake Erie, where the nickel itself is refined and where another 1,500 are employed.

Out of the ground last year there was mined enough ore to build a hill half a mile long, a quarter of a mile wide and 25 feet high. How much ore that leaves in the ground no one knows. The mineralized belt forms a circle northwest of Sudbury about a hundred miles around, and Inco’s known reserves amount to 217 million tons, but each year the company spends large sums on exploration to widen and define its reserves.

Getting It Out Is Easy

Getting the ore out of the ground is relatively simple. Getting the valuable metal – nickel, copper, silver, gold and platinum out of the ore is something else again. Holes are punched into the rock with drills, a charge of dynamite laid, then at the flick of a switch the ore comes tumbling down. From there on in, as Jim Parlee, the milling superintendent described it, “You just beat the hell out of it!”

The ore gets its first beating at the bottom of the mine. It is pushed into a crusher and broken to six-inch size. It gets a breather en route to the mill at Copper Cliff in 75-ton side-dump railway cars. To move the ore from pit head to mill, smelter and refinery necessitates the operation of 60 miles of railway tracks, complete with both electric and steam locomotives. The real beating of the ore begins when it is dumped, 10 cars at a time, into the bines at the mills.

The first step is to bust it down to sand size in conical crushers. It is still about a hundred sizes too large. A conveyor belt – there are 20,000 feet of it in the mill – transfers the ore to one of 34 king-sized churns called Marcy Mills. These are revolving drums, 15 feet long and six feet n diameter, into which have been loaded 42 tons of steel rods three inches thick. As the churn revolves on its side the steel rods tumble around and grind ore, mixed with water, into powder.

The conveyor belt takes it to the flotation machines, which only vaguely resemble a household mixer, for the acid treatment. The ore is muddied with water, chemicals are added and air is blown into the mixer. The chemicals grab onto the valuable metals, which then come bubbling up to the surface to be wafted over the aide by a revolving rubber paddle.

What doesn’t rise to the surface, perhaps two thirds of the original ore, is quietly pumped out the back door to a tailings disposal dump, three miles away, where it is pushed out and forgotten.

Eventually it dries out and some of it might even blow away to land on the freshly laundered shirts of the stope boss who blew it out of the ground in the first place.

For the recovered ore, called concentrates, there are several other beatings in the mill before it is dried out and sent off to the smelter, again over conveyor belts. There it is first persuaded to set itself on fire and most of the sulphur is roasted out of it. Then it goes to one of the nine giant furnaces. The temperature is whooped up to 2,500 degrees and the ore turns to liquid.

The valuable metal drops to the bottom and then the furnace is tapped – the operation being repeated about 50 times a day at each furnace. The slag, containing mostly iron and silica, is spilled into 20-ton ladles and hauled away, 15 or 20 at a time, by an electric locomotive to the slag dump. On a good day the railway will toss 15,000 tons of slag on the pile.

By this time less than 10% of the 22,000 tons that came out of the ground is still around, still getting the heat treatment. It is getting to the point where it is mostly nickel and copper. The marriage is dissolved by adding bricks of sodium sulphate to the brew. This is the famous Orford process, without which there would be no Sudbury; without which indeed, there very nearly was no Sudbury.

Let’s get out of the smelter for a moment – it’s no more than 10 minutes walk to the front door – and pick up a bit of history.

Sixty odd years ago, Sam Ritchie was a wagon-building tycoon in Akron, Ohio. He bought a lot of lumber for his plants in Ontario and got interested in some iron ore deposits in Hastings County. To get the ore to market he had to build the Central Ontario Railway down to Trenton on Lake Ontario. But the first shipment showed that the iron was full of sulphur, and sulphurous iron ore is something steelmakers cannot use. The new railway had no traffic.

Enter the Devil

But having got into the railroad business, Ritchie got stubborn and decided to stay in it. He wandered up to Ottawa, probably looking for help, and went in to see an official in the Resources Department. He picked up a chunk of slaty-colored rock that was lying on the table.

“What’s this stuff?” he asked, making conversation.

“Oh, that,” said the official. “That’s copper ore. Cane in the other day form a couple hundred miles northwest of here. The construction workers uncovered it when they were putting the CPR through. They claim there is lots of it there at a place called Sudbury.”

“H-m-m-m-m,” said Ritchie, thinking fast. This might solve the problem of his freightless railway. Extend it to Sudbury and haul copper ore instead of iron ore.

Ritchie caught the train for Sudbury and came back with 1,000 acres of copper claims in his pocket. By 1886 he had organized the Canadian Copper Company, had a mine operating and contracted to ship 100,000 tons of ore to the Orford Refinery at Bayonne, N.J. Once again the first shipment almost ruined Ritchie. The Sudbury mining boom went down the drain. The copper ore was full of nickel. In those days nickel was to copper what sulphur was to iron ore – an unmixed dissaster.

The word nickel itself derives from the German kupfernickel or Old Nick’s copper, first applied to it 200 years ago by some miners in Saxony who discovered a deposit of copper ore which, when smelted, turned not the familiar red but white. To them it was useless, but years later, when a Swedish chemist finally isolated the white metal, he naturally named it nickel.

Having got stubborn about his railway, Ritchie got stubborn about his copper. Teaming up with Robert M. Thompson, who ran the Orford refinery, he set out to find a market for nickel and a sample process for separating nickel and copper.

Eventually Ritchie found one and Thompson the other. Thompson discovered that by adding sodium sulphate, or nitric cake and coke, to molten copper and nickel, strange things happened. The nickel sulphide settled to the bottom, the sodium sulphide combined with the copper and floated to the top.

The discovery of this process made Sudbury. That and the orders that poured in from the armament makers once Ritchie demonstrated the superiority of nickel-alloy steel over ordinary steel. In the flurry over nickel, Ritchie’s railway was almost forgotten. Today it is a three-train-a-week branch of the CNR.

It might almost be said that International Nickel, today, is a monument to the stubborn refusal of Sam Ritchie to get out of the railroading business. It’s quite a monument, so vast and sprawling that it is doubtful if any Nickel employee has seen it all. It is a corporation with $300 millions in assets. It produces and markets 80% of the world’s nickel. Its net sales run to $130 millions a year and its profits in 1946 were $29 millions.

In terms of physical plants and assets, the figures translate into the mines, the vast establishment at Copper Cliff and the Port Colborne refinery; a huge plant at Huntington, West Virginia, turning out nothing but Monel metal (one of the most popular nickel-copper alloys); plants at Bayonne, N.J., at Birmingham, England, Glasgow, Scotland and Clydach, Wales. It also operates batches of research laboratories wherever it has a processing plant.

As a consumer of other supplies, Nickel is an equally large potato. To timber its shafts and working stopes, Nickel has used 77 million board feet of timber in one year for pit props. Cutting that much lumber provides year-round work for 1,000 men in the bush. To keep the timber in place requires 2 ½ tons of nails a day.

Ten thousand tons of steel are used yearly in the rod mills that grind the ore to powder. The smelter devours 35,000 tons of Saskatchewan sodium sulphate and 6,000 tons of lime. In addition to operating its own railway system, complete with shops, it uses $6 millions worth of service annually from the Canadian railways….continued

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