A New Addiction the US Can’t Afford: [Vanadium] Foreign Batteries – by By Ron MacDonald

Based in Vancouver, Canada, Ron MacDonald is Vice Chairman & Director, Senior Council Global Markets of American Vanadium Corp.

The US government’s commitment to supporting both the renewable energy and electric vehicle industries underlines the need for the rapid development of the automotive and mass storage batteries, and has thrown the spotlight on domestic vanadium supplies.

In the not-too-distant future, will America find itself exchanging an addiction to foreign oil with an addiction to foreign batteries? Or will it create a successful battery market policy through its current efforts to bolster manufacturing while securing strategic materials? Either way, it seems certain that playing a critical role will be a little known element: vanadium.

It’s easy to connect the four dots involved: (1) US government policy is focused on reducing reliance on foreign oil and lowering CO2 emissions; (2) As a result, renewable energy investments and electric vehicles production will capture an increasingly large part of the American economy; (3) Since renewables such as wind and solar require mass storage batteries to effectively integrate with the grid, and since electric vehicles require higher performance batteries to compete with gas-burning cars; then (4) new battery solutions are vital to the US hitting its policy targets.

What isn’t as obvious, however, is whether those batteries will be manufactured in the US, and whether America will have secure access to the critical materials needed. Fortunately, both the technologies and materials required are currently found within America’s borders.

In the case of battery technology for electric vehicles (EVs), one of the most important factors in the public transitioning from petroleum based vehicles to green tech EVs is power. One of the leading contenders in this area is the powerful lithium-vanadium phosphate battery. When compared to the batteries in such EVs as the Chevrolet Volt or the Nissan LEAF, these next generation lithium-vanadium batteries go farther between charges and can recharge up to 80% in 15 minutes. Thus, you would have an electric vehicle that requires little behavioral change in the way the vast majority of people interact with their vehicles.

One of the major impediments to the expansion of the renewable energy industry is the inability to provide energy to the grid at the same time as the demand is present. With wind and solar we cannot control when the sun shines or the wind blows, so there needs to be a mechanism to marry the production of renewable energy to when that energy is needed. What is needed is affordable mass storage capacity that can provide ‘ dispatchable power ‘ to the grid when and where it is needed. One of the leading solutions is the vanadium redox flow battery or VFB. This technology has proven its ability to store and dispatch power in an efficient and economic manner, and could remove some of the barriers to a significant expansion of wind and solar investments and installations.

Luckily, two great American companies, Prudent Energy in Maryland, and Ashlawn Energy of Virginia are leaders in the research and development of VFB technologies, with many others wading into the new industry. 

When it comes to the critical material needed for both these technologies – vanadium – the Gibellini Project in Nevada represents the only North American vanadium mine coming online. With an estimated annual output of 6,000 metric tons of vanadium, the Gibellini project could securely supply over 25% of America’s needs. Better yet, the project’s operator, American Vanadium, is actively looking to vertically integrate with a clean energy battery manufacturer to ensure the supply of high quality, stable priced vanadium to America’s EV battery and grid scale energy storage markets.

But as with capturing any emerging market, time is of the essence. Other nations are already actively making great efforts to establish themselves as leaders in these vanadium-reliant markets. Subaru chose a lithium-vanadium battery for its prototype G4e EV, significantly increasing the car’s range to 120 miles while reducing recharge times to only 15 minutes for an 80% quick charge or 8 hours for a full charge. Also in Japan, a prototype of GS Yuasa Corporation’s (GSY’s) lithium-vanadium phosphate battery showed lower production costs while a 20% output gain compared to a lithium iron phosphate battery.

GSY expects the new battery to be used in hybrid electric vehicles through their joint ventures with Mitsubishi and Honda, as well as through Toyota, one of their principle shareholders. Along with researchers at Japan’s Kansai University, Nissan has developed a high speed charging process for their new vanadium tungsten battery publishing hopes to reduce the charging time to 3 minutes. Finally, BYD China’s vertically integrated auto manufacturer and the largest rechargeable battery maker in China also has interest in vanadium chemistries. Not only is BYD actively doing commercial work on lithium-vanadium batteries, but it is also focused on primary resource acquisition; the company has targeted vanadium mineral resources in China’s Shaanxi Province. 

So the questions remain: Will it be some foreign country that connects the dots between tomorrow’s energy and battery needs and the criticality of having a secure vanadium supply? Will the US continue to import over 90% of the vanadium it already relies on for the steel industry from China, Russia, Venezuela and South Africa? Or will the US create a truly forward-looking market policy that fosters its growing electric vehicle and renewable energy battery markets while taking advantage of the vanadium within its own borders? Again, both the technology and materials are in America’s hands. I for one am confident, that the US government will make the right choices  in supporting policies designed to support and encourage a rapid expansion of the American renewable energy sector, and that vanadium produced right here in the U.S. of A. will play the leading role.