Vanadium is the latest beneficiary of the battery craze (The Economist – July 21, 2018)

A metal used to harden steel could also help prevent global warming

OPEN a toolbox, pull out a spanner and you may be holding a bit of the answer to global warming: vanadium, a metal named after Vanadis, the Scandinavian goddess of beauty. Used mostly in alloys to strengthen steel, its appearance may not live up to the romance of its name. Yet vanadium could become a vital ingredient in large clean-energy batteries, in which case it will shine a lot brighter.

Its price has already been rising faster than cobalt, copper and nickel, all of which are used in lithium-ion batteries (see chart). The main reason for the run-up is prosaic. About nine-tenths of the world’s vanadium is used to harden steel; China has tightened standards on the strength of rebar to make buildings more earthquake-proof.

Mark Smith, boss of Largo Resources, which mines high-purity vanadium in Brazil, says this alone should increase demand for the metal by up to 15,000 tonnes in 2018-19. Last year total production was 83,000 tonnes.

But adding oomph is the incipient demand for vanadium pentoxide, a compound that is used as an electrolyte in vanadium redox flow batteries (VRBs). These batteries are as big as shipping containers and may be better at storing large amounts of wind and solar energy than stacks of lithium-ion batteries.

VRBs house the electrolyte in tanks separate from the battery cell and can be charged and discharged almost inexhaustibly over 20 years (indeed, this gives the electrolyte enough residual value that it can be leased). Some analysts reckon that could make them cost-competitive with their lithium equivalents, and safer and more scalable to boot.

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