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Through the Gateway: Vanadium – Next-Gen Uses Drive Co-Product Challenge

As we continue our look “Through the Gateway,” one thing has become abundantly clear already:  Beyond their traditional uses, both Gateway Metals and their Co-Products have become building blocks of our renewable energy future.  This held true for Copper and its Co-Products, but it is also equally true for Aluminum and its Co-Products. While Gallium’s ability to form compounds with various elements lends itself to its application in smartphones and other wireless devices, as well as solar technology, Vanadium – another material “unlocked” by Aluminum – is making an entry.

Traditionally known as an alloying component in various steels, where its strengthening properties come to bear, it has been used in the building and construction industry for a long time.  Ferrovanadium alloys have also been used in protective military vehicles while a Titanium-Aluminum-Vanadium alloy is used in jet engines and high-speed aircraft.

More recently, however, the material’s use in energy storage technology has been making headlines.  With the demand for renewable energy continuing to soar, the energy storage market itself is booming.  As Cleantechnica.com explains:

“Since wind and solar energy come and go, energy storage fills a critical gap in terms of availability and reliability. (…) So far, lithium-ion (Li-ion) technology has staked a claim to the gold standard for energy storage in terms of performance relative to cost. (… ) However, other energy storage technologies have an eye on the prize as well.”

First generation flow battery technology using Vanadium was initially mired by inefficiencies and costliness, but research efforts, in particular by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), have since resulted in significant improvements of the technology.  A breakthrough came with PNNL’s 2011 development of a flow battery design, which added a new electrolyte mix to traditional Vanadium batteries.  This led to a 70 percent increase in storage capacity.

The vastly improved third generation technology is now being applied in national grid modernization efforts: Earlier last month, a new collaboration between industry, the utility EPB of Chattanooga and three U.S. national laboratories using Vanadium flow battery technology was launched in an effort to “develop metrics for evaluating renewable energy and storage integration and demonstrate the benefits of leading energy storage technology to our nation’s grid modernization efforts.”

The bottom line:  demand for Vanadium may well increase as technology advances, with new challenges looming large.  It’s a story with a familiar theme for ARPN followers — the co-product challenge:

According to USGS, Vanadium is at least as plentiful as Nickel and Zinc – at least in terms of its availability in the earth’s crust. However, it rarely occurs in deposits that can be economically mined for the element alone. Between 2009 and 2013, some co-product vanadium production occurred domestically (though not from Bauxite mining for Aluminum), but it has since been suspended. As a result, the United States is currently 100% import dependent for its domestic Vanadium needs – in spite of the fact that “domestic resources and secondary recovery are adequate to supply a large portion of domestic needs.”

This once more begs the question – isn’t it time for a more comprehensive approach to mineral resource policy?