Vanadium : The metal that may soon be powering your neighbourhood
Vanadium is a chemical element with symbol V and atomic number 23. It is a hard, silvery-grey, ductile, malleable transition metal. The elemental metal is rarely found in nature, but once isolated artificially, the formation of an oxide layer (passivation) somewhat stabilizes the free metal against further oxidation
Vanadium is a metal that was discovered in the early 19th century. Here are some of the more common uses of vanadium in the world today!
Uses of Vanadium
Back in 2006, a company decided to reopen an old vanadium mine in Nevada, electricity grids were the last thing on their minds. Back then, vanadium was all about steel. That's because adding in as little as 0.15% vanadium creates an exceptionally strong steel alloy. "Steel mills love it. They take a bar of vanadium, throw it in the mix. At the end of the day they can keep the same strength of the metal, but use 30% less. "It also makes steel tools more resilient. If the name vanadium is vaguely familiar to you, it is probably because you have seen it embossed on the side of a spanner. And because vanadium steel retains its hardness at high temperatures, it is used in drill bits, circular saws, engine turbines and other moving parts that generate a lot of heat. So steel accounts for perhaps 90% of demand for the metal.
Vanadium's alloying properties have been known about for well over a century. Henry Ford used it in 1908 to make the body of his Model T stronger and lighter. It was also used to make portable artillery pieces and body armour in the First World War.But vanadium's history seemingly goes back even further. Indeed, mankind may have been unwittingly exploiting the metal as far back as the 3rd Century BC. That is when "Damascus steel" first began to be manufactured. Swords made of the steel were said to be so sharp that a hair would split if it were dropped on to the blade.Today, vanadium mainly goes into structural steel, such as in bridges and the "rebar" used to reinforce concrete.
Vanadium supply is dominated by China, Russia and South Africa, where the metal is extracted mostly as a useful by-product from iron ore slag and other mining processes. China - which is midway through the longest and biggest construction boom in history - also dominates demand. A recent decision by Beijing to stop using low-quality steel rebar has bumped up forecast demand for vanadium by 40%. Yet the biggest source of future demand may have nothing to do with steel at all, and may instead exploit vanadium's unusual electrochemical nature.
Vanadium "redox flow" batteries are very stable. They can be discharged and recharged 20,000 times without much loss of performance, and are thought to last decades (they have not been around long enough for this to have been demonstrated in practice)
Why should vanadium batteries be the technology of choice?
There is a glut of cheap lithium batteries these days, after manufacturers built out their capacity heavily in anticipation of a hybrid and electric cars boom that has yet to arrive.
Lithium batteries can deliver a lot of power very quickly, which is great if you need to balance sudden unexpected fluctuations - as may be caused by passing clouds for solar, or a passing gale for wind. But a lithium battery cannot be recharged even a tenth as many times as a vanadium battery - it's likely to die after 1,000 or 2,000 recharges.
Lithium batteries cannot scale up to the size needed to store an entire community's energy for several hours. By contrast, vanadium batteries can be made to store more energy simply by adding bigger tanks of electrolyte. They can then release it at a sedate pace as needed, unlike conventional batteries, where greater storage generally means greater power.
At the other end of the scale, there are also plenty of large-scale energy storage systems under development, such as those exploiting liquefied air, and the 1,000-fold shrinkage in the volume of the air when it is cooled to -200C. But these systems take up a lot of space and are better suited to the very largest-scale facilities that will be needed to serve for instance a large offshore wind farm plugging into the high-voltage national grid.
The second really big question for vanadium is whether the world contains enough of the stuff.
The immediate challenge is that the birth of the vanadium battery business is coming just as China is ramping up its demand for vanadium steel. There is also a longer-term problem - the quantities of vanadium added to steel alloys are so tiny that it is not economic to recover it from the steel at the end of its life. So for the battery market, that vanadium is effectively lost forever.
"Like with all raw materials, it's always a question of how stable is the need of the market, and how big are the incentives for the industry to set up new mines."
With demand on an upward trend for Vanadium battery-makers has developed cheap ways of producing vanadium electrolyte from iron ore slag and the fine ash produced by coal-burning.
Over the longer term, demand for vanadium steel could be met by melting down and recasting old vanadium steel rather than making it afresh, so that freshly mined vanadium could be channelled into the energy market instead.
One of the world’s least known metals is also of great importance, and likely to become more so as renewable energies catch up with and possibly eclipse fossil fuels. Yet vanadium’s primary use as a steel alloy is set to keep prices buoyant and North American explorers racing to find a domestic source of the metal that was once used to make swords so strong and sharp the mere sight of them struck fear into the hearts of their enemies.
A sword of Damascus steel – derived from blocks of “wootz”, a form of steel produced from vanadium-rich iron deposits in South India – was said to be so sharp that it could split a hair dropped on the blade, cut a floating feather in half, or crack a steel helmet wide open with ease. The blades were so flexible they could bend 90 degrees without breaking.
First discovered in 1801 by a professor of mineralogy in Mexico City, vanadium, whose symbol V is based on the Norse goddess Vanadis, has some rare qualities that give it the ability to make materials stronger, lighter, more efficient and more powerful. Adding small percentages of it to steel and aluminum creates ultra-high-strength, super-light and resilient alloys.
Just two pounds of vanadium added to a tonne of steel doubles its strength, so it is unsurprising that 80% of vanadium is used to make ferrovanadium – a steel additive.
Henry Ford was the first to use vanadium on an industrial scale, in the 1908 Model T car chassis. But it is only recently that auto makers have discovered that adding vanadium to car bodies makes them lighter and stronger.
Twenty years ago, no vanadium went into cars, versus around 45 percent today. By 2025, it’s estimated that 85 percent of all automobiles will incorporate vanadium alloy to reduce their weight, thereby increasing their fuel efficiency to conform to stringent fuel economy standards set by the US EPA. Who would have thought any material could make steel ‘greener’?
Vanadium’s corrosion-resistant properties make it ideal for tubes and pipes manufactured to carry chemicals. Vanadium-titanium alloys have the best strength-to-weight ratio of any engineered material on earth. Less than one percent of vanadium and as little chromium makes steel shock and vibration resistant. A thin layer of vanadium is used to bond titanium to steel, making it ideal for aerospace applications. Mixing titanium with vanadium and iron strengthens and adds durability to turbines that spin up to 70,000 rpm.
Since vanadium does not easily absorb neutrons it has important applications in nuclear power. Vanadium pentoxide (V2O5) permanently fixes dyes to fabrics. Vanadium oxide is utilized as a pigment for ceramics and glass, as a chemical catalyst, and to produce superconducting magnets.
Of course, the latest application for vanadium is for batteries, particularly vanadium redox flow batteries used for grid energy storage, of which vanadium pentoxide is the main ingredient.
Where it's found and how it's mined
About 85 percent of the world's vanadium comes from three source countries: South Africa, China and Russia. Vanadium is typically found within magnetite iron ore deposits, and is usually mined as a byproduct and not as a primary mineral. Vanadium is often agglomerated with titanium, which must be separated out as an impurity during processing. The higher the titanium content in the ore, the harder it is to remove the vanadium. The end product is vanadium pentoxide, which can be used for the applications cited above or to make ferrovanadium for use in steel.
While V2O5 currently sells for between US$16,000 and US$17,000 a ton, titanium goes for just $US1,500 a ton, which means a low grade of titanium is an attractive feature of a vanadium prospect. Some of the world's key vanadium mines include the Bushveld complex in South Africa – responsible for about a quarter of all vanadium supply; the high-grade Maracas mine in Brazil owned by Largo Resources; and EVRAZ’s Vanady Tula mine in Russia, the largest European producer of vanadium pentoxide and ferrovanadium alloys.
Cities and roads girded with steel
The world needs more steel, ergo, more vanadium. The latest estimate is that vanadium demand and supply currently intersect at about 80,000 tonnes per year. Market research firm Roskill predicts that by 2020 there will be about a 45 percent increase in the demand for vanadium, driven mostly by China.
As an example of how much steel will be required to build just one new Chinese city – Xiong'an, consider that the city will likely need 20 to 30 million tonnes of steel, which translates to 30,000 tonnes of vanadium – roughly a third of current annual production, albeit over 10 years. That means 3,000 additional tonnes of vanadium a year for the next decade, for just one city – an increase of 5 percent above current supply and demand.
Another thing going for vanadium is China's reluctance to manufacture low-quality rebar used in building construction. Recent earthquakes in China and Japan have shown the Chinese that using cheap rebar is penny wise and pound foolish.
“They're increasing the amount of vanadium in the rebar by about 100 percent so that they can end up with structural specifications that are necessary to keep buildings standing for long periods of time. The rebar alone, that's estimated to bring another 10,000 tonnes a year of vanadium demand,” said Priestner.
The increased use of vanadium in automobiles is worth re-iterating. Auto makers have discovered that adding vanadium to car bodies makes them lighter and stronger.
Twenty years ago no vanadium went into cars, versus around 45 percent today. By 2025, it’s estimated that 85 percent of all automobiles will incorporate vanadium alloy to reduce their weight, thereby increasing their fuel efficiency to conform to stringent fuel economy standards set by the US EPA.
Chinese infrastructure investments in the New Silk Road – a $900-billion project set to open up land and maritime routes between China and its western neighbors, namely Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe – is another massive spend on steel that will inevitably require more vanadium than is currently being mined.
Then there are the new infrastructure demands in the United States that President Donald Trump campaigned on in 2016 and is promising to address. The state of disrepair of much of America's infrastructure is truly staggering. It's estimated that 80,000 bridges, or over half the entire stock of U.S. bridge structures, need to be repaired or replaced. Whether or not Trump's infrastructure bill is passed, there will certainly be a future need for more U.S. steel, and more vanadium.
In March and April of 2017, electricity produced from utility-scale renewable sources exceeded nuclear power generation in the United States for the first time since 1984. It’s also worth mentioning that besides v-flow batteries, vanadium has also begun to play a role in applications for electric and hybrid vehicles.
Vanadium acts as a supercharger for batteries by increasing the energy density and voltage of the battery. This is important for electric and hybrid vehicle performance since energy density equates to range, while voltage equates to torque.
Insecurity of supply
With vanadium demand set to soar, it is a valid question as to where new vanadium supply will come from. There are currently no North American reserves, a situation that is and should be deeply alarming to politicians on both sides of the 49th parallel.
A critical or strategic metal is defined as one whose lack of availability during a national emergency would affect the economic and defensive capabilities of that country. The United States and Canada, are completely dependent on recycling (mostly through recovery from spent catalyst from oil refining operations) and imports for 100% of their vanadium supply.
Consider what happened to the rare earths market in the 2000s, when China, which produces 90 percent of REEs, restricted exports, causing prices to spike around the world. Rare earths are used in everything from cell phones to wind turbines to missile guidance systems. With just three countries – South Africa, China and Russia – controlling the supply of vanadium, there is a high risk of that supply either being cut off due to a political or trade conflict, or for the price to suddenly jump.
While v-flow batteries have tremendous appeal for harnessing the power of the wind and sun, their mass adoption so their direct application to the supply-demand equation for vanadium is probably a few years off. New technologies take a long time to be proven out, tested and adopted by the mainstream.
And that’s probably just as well, because vanadium suppliers simply won’t be able to keep up with the amount of demand that is coming down the pipe for the 22nd most abundant element. Think back to that single Chinese city being built – over a third of the world’s vanadium production over the next decade going into one city. That isn’t counting the expected increase in vanadium needed for steel production, defense, automobiles, aerospace, rebar and all the other vanadium applications.
The answer is to bring new vanadium mines online – especially North American deposits that can produce vanadium pentoxide and ferrovanadium, thus bringing the supply-demand curve down to a point where the price is attractive for both vanadium producers and consumers, while increasing security of supply in an increasingly hostile world.
Because vanadium is a metal that seems destined for a supply crunch, because of its applications for traditional industries like autos, aerospace, defense and steelmaking, and due to its promising potential for long-term battery storage of grid-scale electricity, companies that are developing vanadium deposits in North America need to be on your radar screen.