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Molten nickel pig iron is removed from a massive bucket at a plant in Huaibei, China. (Andy Hoffman/The Globe and Mail)
Molten nickel pig iron is removed from a massive bucket at a plant in Huaibei, China. (Andy Hoffman/The Globe and Mail)

A breakthrough in China, <br/>another blow for Sudbury Add to ...

Ask Li Guang about the prospects for his business and a self-assured grin creeps across the young executive’s face. It’s a smile that means trouble for Canada’s nickel-mining capital of Sudbury, Ont., more than 11,000 kilometres away from Mr. Li’s office in eastern China.

“Our production has quite a lot of advantages compared to refined nickel,” says the budding metals titan, who is all of 30 years old and dressed in a short-sleeve dress shirt and black jeans. “Now, in China, many other enterprises are going to enter this market. Gradually they will take over a lot of the share of refined nickel.”

Mr. Li and his company, Jiangsu Mingzhu, are among the many Chinese manufacturers churning out a revolutionary product known as nickel pig iron or NPI. Despite its prosaic name, the alloy has set the global nickel industry on its ear by providing a low-cost alternative to the refined nickel that has typically been used to make stainless steel. Cheap NPI threatens to squelch demand for the refined metal, which is produced in places like Sudbury, as well as in Russia and Australia.

In less than five years, NPI has reshaped the world nickel industry, marking a new stage in China’s capitalist evolution. Since it opened itself to trade in the late 1970s, the Asian nation has become famous for two things – lowering the price of manufactured products with its cheap labour costs, and driving up the price of commodities with its aggressive demand. Now it is altering the fundamentals of a vital industrial sector with a homespun innovation.

NPI, a material produced in low-tech Chinese factories, already accounts for as much as 10 per cent of the world’s $21-billion-a-year nickel market, more than all the nickel that can be produced annually in Sudbury. Some analysts expect China’s NPI producers to double their output this year.

The booming supply of the new product hits hard at traditional nickel miners. Until recently, the world’s largest mining firms believed that surging Chinese demand for the metal would last for decades. As a result, fevered takeover battles erupted in 2006 and 2007 for Canada’s two nickel giants, Inco and Falconbridge.

But the days of $24 (U.S.) a pound nickel, last witnessed in 2007, are unlikely to ever return. The average Chinese producer of NPI can now be profitable at nickel prices of about $8.50 a pound – just about exactly where prices stand right now. If nickel prices were to surge, China’s NPI producers could quickly flood the market with their lower-cost alternative.

“It does put a cap on world nickel prices. If not in practical terms, at least in psychological terms,” concedes David Constable, vice-president of investor relations at Quadra FNX Mining Ltd., a Canadian company that began as a Sudbury nickel producer but has diversified its production to focus primarily on copper.

BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s largest mining firm, has already turned bearish on nickel and sold some of its mines. The emergence of NPI was a key factor in the decision, analysts say. They expect the Chinese product’s impact to only get larger with time, as more producers enter the fray.

In a worst-case scenario, NPI could usurp all of China’s demand for traditional nickel, reducing the global market for the metal and creating a nightmare for firms that paid top dollar for nickel assets at the height of the market. Among the firms that invested heavily were Vale SA, the Brazilian iron ore giant that paid $19.4-billion in 2006 to win control of Inco’s Sudbury operations, and Xstrata PLC, the Anglo-Swiss metals conglomerate that scooped up Falconbridge and its Sudbury nickel assets at a price that valued the company at more than $22-billion. (Both Vale and Xstrata declined comment for this story.) Vale’s nickel production in Sudbury and Voisey’s Bay, Newfoundland, has been crippled for nearly a year by a bitter strike over workers’ wages and benefits. If and when production resumes, the company’s commitment to exploration and expansion in Canada will have to be made with the threat of NPI looming large.

How did a low-profile collection of Chinese manufacturers upset the plans of the world’s mining giants? It’s a story about ingenuity born out of necessity. It’s also a story about China’s emerging entrepreneurial class and its growing impact on the global economy.

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