Nickel is the fifth most common element on earth, but its use was limited commercially until the last century due to the difficulties in extracting and refining it. Since that time, the development of the jet engine was a major catalyst for the development of nickel-based alloys, in order to provide metals that could combine high strength at high temperatures.

The melting temperature of nickel is 1435 °C, which is far higher than metals such as copper (1084 °C) and aluminium (660 °C), but far lower than metals such as tungsten (3400 °C). The ability to operate at elevated temperatures though is not only linked to metals melting temperature, otherwise iron (1150 °C) or steel (1400 °C) would be more widely used. The additional property of nickel and nickel alloys which allows them to operate at elevated temperatures is their ability to form a thick, stable, passivating oxide layer when heated which protects them from further attack. This oxide layer can be several microns in thickness, dependent upon the temperature and environment to which the metal has been exposed. Nickel alloys can also resist carburisation, where carbon species are present at high temperature, for instance during the cracking of gas in various chemical processing or refinery operations.

Strengthening mechanisms.

The high-temperature strength is retained by solid solution strengthening or precipitation strengthening depending upon the particular alloy. The mechanism of solid solution strengthening works by adding atoms of the alloying element to the crystal lattice of nickel. This disturbance in the crystal structure makes deformation more difficult by slowing down or blocking the movement of ‘dislocations’. Elements such as molybdenum are added in Inconel 625 (Alloy 625, UNS N06625, 2.4856), to improve the level of strength attained.

In precipitation strengthening, small amounts of niobium, titanium and aluminium combine with nickel to form intermetallic precipitates. These precipitates are formed during a final heat treatment process known also as ageing. The precipitates also slow down the movement of dislocations in the crystal structure increase the strength and toughness. At higher temperatures this mechanism also reduces the likelihood for creep to occur, which is exploited in aerospace applications. Nickel alloys that utilise precipitation strengthening include Inconel 718 (Alloy 718, UNS N07718, 2.4668), Inconel 725 (Alloy 725, UNS N07725), Incoloy 925 (Alloy 925, UNS N09925) and Monel K-500 (Alloy K-500, UNS N05500, 2.4375).

As nickel will alloy readily with many other metals, it is possible to improve the level of corrosion resistance and other physical properties besides strength. Chromium and molybdenum are commonly added to enhance resistance to corrosion and oxidation, with molybdenum well understood to improve resistance to pitting corrosion in particular. Copper is also used in Incoloy 825 to enhance resistance to reducing acids such as sulphuric acid, phosphoric acid and hydrochloric acid.

Material Melting point °C Melting range ( °C )
Inconel HX 1260 1260 – 1355
Alloy 718 1260 1260 – 1336
Monel 400 1300 1300 – 1350
Nimonic 90 1310 1310 – 1370
Incoloy 925 1311 1311 – 1366
Monel K500 1315 1315 – 1350
Nimonic 80A 1320 1320 – 1365
Alloy C 276 1325 1325 – 1370
Incoloy DS 1330 1330 – 1400
Nimonic 75 1340 1340 – 1380
Inconel 625 1351 1351 – 1387
Inconel 600 1354 1354 – 1413
Incoloy 800 1357 1357 – 1385
Incoloy 800H/HT 1357 1357 – 1385
Inconel 601 1360 1360 – 1411
Incoloy 825 1370 1370 – 1400
Alloy 330 1380 1380 – 1420
Inconel X750 1390 1390 – 1430
Nickel 200/201 1435 1435 – 1446