The obscure metal that could solve solar energy’s conundrum – by Carl Mortished (Globe and Mail – July 16, 2014)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

On the fringes of global stock markets, fascination with materials continues and the latest obscure object of adoration is vanadium, a metal you may have never heard of but which is well known in the steel industry because it does the neat trick of making steel both stronger and lighter.

Add a couple of pounds of vanadium to a ton of steel and you double its strength, a formula that excites Largo Resources Ltd., a Toronto-listed miner that is only weeks away from opening a Brazilian mine that could supply almost a 10th of the worldwide vanadium market in two to three years time.

There are few sources of the metal; China is the big producer and consumer of vanadium, taking more than half of global output. South Africa and Russia currently account for the remainder. China’s hunger for construction steel laced with vanadium is expected to increase as the government grapples with poor building standards, exposed in recent earthquakes and civil engineering disasters.

Aircraft and automobile manufacturers are also falling in love with vanadium’s dual attributes of lightness and toughness. Boeing’s Dreamliner and the Airbus A380 each contain 100 tonnes of titanium-vanadium; Largo says demand for the alloy is rising by 6.5 per cent annually, despite a global steel glut.

Vanadium-steel alloys have been used industrially since the 19th century. Indeed, traces of vanadium were found in the “Damascus scimitars” used by Saladin’s warriors to rout Christian crusaders. More intriguing is an entirely different application that has emerged out of left field – solar energy storage. Batteries made with vanadium dissolved in sulphuric acid are being touted as the solution to a bizarre 21st-century problem: the world is suffering from a glut of renewable energy.

Overgenerous feed-in tariffs imposed by politicians anxious to promote green energy have created an artificial market for solar energy panels and wind turbines. Nowhere has the artificial stimulus been more acute than in Germany, a nation shadowed by cloud for much of the year but which boasts the title of the world’s biggest generator of solar energy.

Attracted by the idea of selling sunlight captured on their rooftops to a utility and thus lowering their electricity bills, German households have installed millions of panels, so many that power generation records were being broken weekly during a sunny period in June when 24 gigawatts of power was being produced in the middle of the day, enough, in theory, to satisfy half of Germany’s electricity demand.

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