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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.