Nickel is a chemical element with symbol Ni and atomic number 28. It is a silvery-white lustrous metal with a slight golden tinge. Nickel belongs to the transition metals and is hard and ductile. Pure nickel shows a significant chemical activity that can be observed when nickel is powdered to maximize the exposed surface area on which reactions can occur, but larger pieces of the metal are slow to react with air at ambient conditions due to the formation of a protective oxide surface. Even then, nickel is reactive enough with oxygen that native nickel is rarely found on Earth's surface, being mostly confined to the interiors of larger nickel–iron meteorites that were protected from oxidation during their time in space. On Earth, such native nickel is found in combination with iron, a reflection of those elements' origin as major end products of supernova nucleosynthesis. An iron–nickel mixture is thought to compose Earth's inner core. Pure native nickel is found in tiny amounts, usually in ultramafic rocks.
The use of nickel (as a natural meteoric nickel–iron alloy) has been traced as far back as 3500 BCE. Nickel was first isolated and classified as a chemical element in 1751 by Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, who initially mistook its ore for a copper mineral. The element's name comes from a mischievous sprite of German miner mythology, Nickel (similar to Old Nick), that personified the fact that copper-nickel ores resisted refinement into copper. An economically important source of nickel is the iron ore limonite, which often contains 1–2% nickel. Nickel's other important ore minerals include garnierite, and pentlandite. Major production sites include the Sudbury region in Canada (which is thought to be of meteoric origin), New Caledonia in the Pacific, and Norilsk in Russia.
Because of nickel's slow rate of oxidation at room temperature, it is considered corrosion-resistant. Historically, this has led to its use for plating metals such as iron and brass, coating chemistry equipment, and manufacturing certain alloys that retain a high silvery polish, such as German silver. About 6% of world nickel production is still used for corrosion-resistant pure-nickel plating. Nickel-plated items are noted for provoking nickel allergy. Nickel has been widely used in coins, though its rising price has led to some replacement with cheaper metals in recent years.
Nickel is one of four elements that are ferromagnetic around room temperature. Alnico permanent magnets based partly on nickel are of intermediate strength between iron-based permanent magnets and rare-earth magnets. The metal is chiefly valuable in the modern world for the alloys it forms; about 60% of world production is used in nickel-steels (particularly stainless steel). Other common alloys, as well as some new superalloys, make up most of the remainder of world nickel use, with chemical uses for nickel compounds consuming less than 3% of production. As a compound, nickel has a number of niche chemical manufacturing uses, such as a catalyst for hydrogenation. Enzymes of some microorganisms and plants contain nickel as an active site, which makes the metal an essential nutrient for them.