VANADIUM – METAL FOR THE FUTURE

In 1830 Nils Gabriel Seifstrom, a Swedish chemist was analysing samples of Iron ore from a mine in Sweden when he came across a new element whose compounds were brightly coloured and beautiful. It somehow reminded him of the Norse Goddess Vanadis, the Scandinavian equivalent of Venus whose beauty was feverishly sought after by all men, be they Gods or mortals, kings or commoners, giants or dwarfs. So he named the new element VANADIUM. Despite it’s colourful and attractive looks Vanadium wasn’t very well-known or sought after. But all that has changed in the last few years. Now, Vanadium is deemed as the mineral of the future and countries are scouting so frenziedly for sources that the prescience of the name given by Seifstrom strikes you with mild amusement.                    

What is Vanadium and why is it the metal of the future?

Vanadium is a hard, silvery grey transition metal that is ductile and malleable with good structural strength. It occurs naturally in about 65 different minerals inclusive of Patronite, Vanadinite, Roscoelite and Cacnotite. It occurs in association with titaniferous magnetite and is recovered as a by-product during iron & steel manufacture. It is mostly used for it’s strengthening property. A quantity as small as 2 pounds of Vanadium can double the strength of a tonne of steel. So Vanadium’s most known avatar is as ‘FerroVanadium’ – a steel additive. Vanadium-titanium alloys have the best strength-to-weight ratio when compared to other engineered materials produced in the world. Vanadium added to steel also makes it shock and vibration resistant. So it is little wonder that Vanadium’s applications in the automobile, aerospace, and infrastructure industries are wide and getting more diverse by the day. In the 1920s, Henry Ford was the first and the only car manufacturer to use Vanadium in cars. Today, 45 % of the cars have Vanadium in their body. This percentage is likely to increase steeply in the next few years.With the auto world moving towards fuel efficiency and green technology, the need to use Vanadium to make car bodies that are light yet strong is more deeply felt. By 2025 it is estimated that more than 85% of Cars will have Vanadium alloys to enable them to meet higher fuel efficiency standards.  

Vanadium’s strengthening properties have also made it a must-use element in rebars used in building construction. This is another reason why Vanadium demand is expected to perk. Of late Chinese construction companies have been increasing the vanadium content in their rebars by 100 % to safeguard their building from extensive damage in case of floods and earthquakes. This alone will contribute to 10000 tonnes demand for Vanadium in a year says John Preistner, CEO of Vanadium One Energy Corp.With the New Silk road project taking off, the demand for steel infrastructure and hence for Vanadium is all set to soar. 

There are also other properties of Vanadium that make it attractive to industries. Vanadium does not easily absorb neutrons- this finds important applications in the nuclear power industry. 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.

But above all these alluring strengths of the metal that make it precious, the one reason why it is deemed the metal of the future is it’s use in redox flow batteries for grid energy storage. When talking about the potential of Vanadium batteries in 2017, Mining Magnet Robert Friedland foresaw a revolution.

We think there’s a revolution coming in vanadium redox flow batteries.You’ll have to get into the mining business and produce ultra-pure vanadium electrolyte for those batteries on a massive scale. 
We’re very deeply interested in how you store electrical energy in the grid. The beauty of the vanadium redox battery is that you can charge and discharge it at the same time, something that can’t be done with a lithium battery. With a vanadium redox flow battery, you can put solar power and wind power into the battery, and you can put excess grid power into the battery at night, and at the same time you can have a stable output into the grid.”  – Robert Friedland

A recent report from Banyan Hill anticipates a major rally in Vanadium in the next ten years. Here is an excerpt that tells us exactly why Vanadium has turned so precious! 

Clean energy storage demand is surging 1,445%!….With a global push to harness energy from environmentally friendly and unlimited sources like wind and solar, demand for these storage systems are set to skyrocket over the next several years. And as a result, the battery storage industry is at the cusp of a major rally. This industry was valued at about $11 billion in 2018. But by 2030 that number is expected to explode to $170 billion. That’s annual growth of 25.6%, and total growth of 1,445%! One of the big ones in China is also set to be the world’s largest vanadium-powered battery system. These vanadium battery systems are preferred due to their ability to last over a decade with little to no decrease in performance.

The Indian Scenario

India’s connection to Vanadium goes back to the 6th Century. The ancient Cheran kingdom of South India produced ‘urukku’ steel or ‘Wootz’ steel from Vanadium rich iron deposits in South India. The famous Damascus Swords made from this steel was said to be so sharp and flexible that they could split a hair that falls on the blade, cut a floating feather in half, or crack a steel helmet with just a swing.

The Indian Government’s India Mineral Year book 2016 gives us the following vital information on Vanadium reserves in India. 

“In India, Vanadium is associated with titaniferous magnetite which contains 0.8 to 3% V2O5. It also occurs in significant amounts in association with chromite, laterite, bauxite and ferro- magnesian-rich rocks, such as, pyroxenite, base anorthosite and gabbro. As per NMI database, the total estimated reserves/resources of vanadium ore in India as on 1.4.2015 are placed at 24.63 million tonnes with an estimated V2O5 content of 64,594 tonnes. Vanadium can be recovered from slag that is collected from the processing of vanadiferous magnetite ore where iron and steel are the principal products. The processing of gas and petroleum products is also an important source of vanadium, which is recovered both from the raw material and from the recycling of vanadium-bearing catalyst.”

Indian Aluminium plants have recently started separating Vanadium sludge as a by-product during the Bayer process for production of alumina hydrate. NALCO has completed lab-scale studies to recover vanadium sludge from various Bayer Liquors. Lanjigarh Alumina has developed an in- house process for extraction of vanadium pentoxide present in the bauxite involving simple operations with very low energy consumption. However the Vanadium sludge produced indigenously are not enough to meet demand. Moreover the content of Vanadium in the sludge that can be recovered from the East coast Bauxite is very low. So  Ferrovanadium producing units in India mostly rely on imports.

 The huge worldwide demand that is forecasted means that India cannot continue to be dependent on imports for long. It has to gear up for action. Indian mining countries are looking to acquire mining rights in other source countries of Vanadium particularly in Africa. But that again is not a long term or reliable solution. So it is highly expedient that the Indian mining sector focuses on intensifying research efforts to find ways to utilise the large vanadium-bearing titaniferous ores available locally in Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Odisha.

The favour of the gorgeous Goddess can’t be obtained without serious efforts, can it?

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