What is Vanadium?
Vanadium is a strategic rare chemical element with the symbol V and atomic number 23. It is a soft, silvery gray, ductile transition metal with good structural strength, a natural resistance to corrosion and stability against alkalis, acids and salt water. In nature, the element is found only in chemically combined forms occurring naturally in about 65 different minerals and in fossil fuel deposits. Vanadium is mined mostly in South Africa, north-western China, and eastern Russia. It is typically produced from steel smelter slag and from the flue dust of heavy oil, or as a by-product of uranium mining.
Roughly 63 million tonnes of contained vanadium was produced globally in 2010. Approximately 98% of that production came from vanadium-bearing magnetite found in ultramafic gabbro bodies in South Africa, north-western China, and eastern Russia.
A Steel Strengthener
Vanadium has been used to strengthen and harden steel since the late 1800s when it was used to armor steel in the hull of battle ships. It is strategic in both performance and cost. Vanadium has remarkable characteristics which give it the ability to make things stronger, lighter, more efficient and more powerful. Coined the “Electric Metal”, its electron deficient structure lends itself well to the formation of more stable nitrides and carbides when added to iron. It is also referred to as the plastics of the 21st century as vanadium creates ultra high-strength and super-light alloys. Although other metals can also have similar effects on steel, only a small amount of Vanadium is required to dramatically increase its tensile strength, making Vanadium one of the most cost-effective additives in steel alloys. These unique characteristics have made vanadium essential in construction applications worldwide as earthquake torn regions such as Japan rebuild, development projects explode in response to population increases and economic initiatives and leading edge architecture push the limits of physics. Vanadium is also used as an alloying element in other industries such as aerospace, where, unlike the steel industry, there is no other metallic substitute. Vanadium-titanium alloys have the best strength-to-weight ratio of any engineered material on earth.
Vanadium has begun to play a pivotal role in the advancement of battery technology, namely in automotive (mobile) applications for electric and hybrid vehicles and in stationary energy storage applications for both renewable and conventional energy. Similar to its contribution to steel, it is Vanadium’s 4 positive valence states (+2 through +5) that make it such an excellent energy storage media. Vanadium acts as a supercharger to batteries and improves the performance of what it is added to.
In the case of the car batteries (Lithium Ion Battery), Vanadium increases the energy density and voltage of the battery. This is important for the performance in electric and hybrid vehicles, as energy density equates to distance/range, while voltage equates to available torque.
In the case of energy storage systems, the Vanadium Flow Battery (VFB) is a leading energy storage system given its virtually unlimited storage capacity, long battery life, low maintenance requirements, adaptability and nominal environmental footprint.
Vanadium and Steel
Most Vanadium consumption (up to 98%) is as ferrovanadium (a mixture of iron and vanadium). Vanadium has been used as a steel additive since the late 1800s when “vanadium steel” was used to armor the hull of battleships making them impenetrable to explosive shells. Only a small amount of Vanadium significantly increases the strength, hardness, and high temperature stability of steel. Its electron deficient structure lends itself well to the formation of more stable nitrides and carbides when added to iron and as such vanadium has been referred to as the “electric metal”. Applications of vanadium can be found today in machinery and tools but its greatest demand is in construction and transportation (automotive, aviation and aerospace).
Vanadium in Construction
Vanadium is a strategic metal that is the best strengthening agent for steel. Only a small amount of Vanadium is required to dramatically increase the tensile strength of steel, making Vanadium one of the most cost-effective additives in steel alloys.
Today’s vanadium demand is driven by increased steel production primarily in China, India and the developing world. At the same time, various economic and legislative factors are increasing the use of vanadium in the steel industry, like stronger rebar to reduce catastrophic destruction in earthquake prone regions as well as providing the necessary strength demanded by cutting edge architectural design. As a result, the demand for vanadium is expected to grow at 7 percent each year from 2010 to 2025 based on the steel industry alone.
Vanadium in Transportation
NASA’s SR-71B high speed aircraft uses a titanium-aluminum-vanadium alloy in their jet engines helping them to reach altitudes of over 85,000 feet and speeds of more than 2,200 mph. (Photo: NASA)
Vanadium is also critical as an alloying element in various aspects of transportation including automotive, aviation and aerospace. The machinability and economic benefits of vanadium steel find it widely used in components such as axles, crankshafts, gears and chassis. In aviation and aerospace, vanadium’s strength and thermal stability is utilized in jet engines. Vanadium foil is used in cladding titanium to steel to make airframes. In this sector, vanadium is irreplaceable as there is no acceptable substitute for Vanadium in aerospace titanium alloys. This is because Vanadium-titanium alloys have the best strength-to-weight ratio of any engineered material on earth. As with steel alloys used in construction, only small amounts are required in order to achieve the desired critical properties for safety and performance.
Vanadium and Batteries
Clean, renewable energy technologies such as electric cars, and wind and solar power generation continue to grow across global markets. However, the existing grid was never designed to handle the intermittent power supplies inherent with these clean energy sources. An efficient way to store the surplus of energy while making large amounts available at a moment’s notice has been a crippling hurdle. Renewable energy’s greatest challenge is Vanadium’s greatest opportunity. The solution lies in the unique properties of vanadium that make it the battery supercharger. Vanadium is now making cars go farther faster and delivers the solution to mass clean energy storage systems.
Vanadium in Car Batteries
In mobile battery applications, namely car batteries for use in electric and hybrid vehicles, vanadium is being added to various lithium-based battery technologies to produce a car battery that can store more energy (which translates into a greater distance travelled on a single charge), provide more power (which translates into more torque) and can be recharged faster.
At present, the lithium-Vanadium-phosphate combination is regarded by some as the best chemistry due to the advantage it has over all other existing lithium-based chemistries, (particularly lithium-cobalt batteries, the standard type of chemistry you have in your laptop) because of its ability to produce the highest energy density and voltage. This means they can store more energy than similar chemistries such as Manganese Oxide and are very good at producing power and producing it safely (Figures 1 and 2). Coupled with the fact that lithium-Vanadium-phosphate is cheaper than alternatives such as lithium-cobalt, many researchers and analysts consider this chemistry to be a very real contender for the next generation of automotive batteries. Research and development sources say the amount of Vanadium used relative to lithium in these batteries is a 1:1 ratio.
The Latest Breakthrough
One of the most compelling break-throughs illustrating how Vanadium, when combined with lithium, creates “supercharged” batteries is the recent news by Germany’s DBM Energy. In partnership with German utility Lekker Energie, DBM Energy equipped an Audi A2 electric vehicle with its new lithium-Vanadium metal polymer battery and set a long distance record of 603 kilometres (375 miles) travelled on a single charge. The battery’s basic electro-chemistry consists of a metallic lithium anode and a Vanadium oxide cathode. DBM Energy claims the battery has 97% efficiency and can be charged at virtually any electrical socket. Plugged into a 240-volt direct-current source, the battery can be fully charged within 6 minutes.
There are now several companies that have announced that they are developing and in some cases, soon producing lithium-Vanadium-phosphate batteries:
- China’s BYD Auto
- Japan’s GS Yuasa Corp. (which provides batteries for Mitsubishi Motors)
- Japan’s Subaru Motors
- United States’ Valence Technologies
Vanadium in Storage Batteries
Cellstrom’s solar VFB powering an Italian vineyard
Vanadium is poised to play a pivotal role in the commercialization of renewable energy. Renewable energy’s biggest challenge has been the absence of efficient mass storage. To include a high percentage of renewable energy (which is intermittent at best) into the power grid, you need reliable storage. Right now, any unused renewable energy that is not used immediately is lost.
With the recent nuclear incidents in Japan and the on-going conflicts in Libya and the Middle East, countries are already re-examining their power generation options and seeking out alternatives to nuclear energy and ways to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels. Coupled with reliable storage, renewable energy is one of the obvious choices – it is free, it is abundant, and it is carbon neutral.
It turns out that renewable energy’s greatest challenge is Vanadium’s greatest opportunity. A Vanadium-based battery called the Vanadium Flow Battery (VFB) is regarded as one of the leading energy storage systems. VFBs store energy and can be adapted to meet specific energy storage and power demands.
Advantages of the VFB
The VFB is chemically and structurally different from any other battery. It has a lifespan of tens of thousands of cycles, does not self-discharge while idle or generate high amounts of heat when charging, can charge and discharge simultaneously, and can release huge amounts of electricity instantly – over and over again.
The VFB is the only battery technology today capable of powering everything from a single home (kilowatt hour capacity) right up to the storage demands of a power grid (megawatt hour capacity) to help smooth out the unpredictable flow of energy generated by wind turbines and solar panels.
How a VFB Works
A Vanadium Flow Battery is an assembly of power cells: 2 vanadium based electrolytes (liquids that conduct electricity) separated by a proton exchange membrane such as graphite. In solution, Vanadium’s 4 positive valence states (+2 through +5) make it an excellent electrolyte for use in energy storage media. In the Vanadium Flow Battery, one tank has the positively charged Vanadium ions in two valence states (V4+/V5+) floating in its electrolyte. The other tank holds an electrolyte full of different Vanadium ions in two valence states (V2+/V3+). It is the electron differential between the two cells that generates electric power. When energy is needed, pumps move the ion-saturated electrolyte from both tanks into the stack, where a chemical reaction causes the ions to change their charge, creating electricity. It is the Vanadium pentoxide (V2O5) resulting from this process that effectively stores the energy.
To charge the battery, electricity is sent to the Vanadium battery’s stack. This causes another reaction that restores the original charge of Vanadium ions. The electrical energy is converted into chemical energy stored in the Vanadium ions. The electrolytes with their respective ions are pumped back into to their tanks, where they wait until electricity is needed and the cycle is started again.
Unlike other competing flow battery systems (such as zinc-bromide), a very high number of charges and discharges can occur in a VFB system without any significant decrease in capacity. The VFB has an 87 percent energy efficiency and its energy-holding electrolyte operates at room temperature and never wears out, making the VFB a Green energy storage system.
VFBs are unique in their ability to meet specific energy storage and power demands of almost any size. Because the electrolyte that stores the energy in a VFB is housed in external tanks, it allows power and energy density to be scaled up independently of each other. In other words, want to store more power? Just increase the size of the tanks. As a result, a VFB can meet a wide range of power requirements from kilowatt-hour capacity to megawatt-hour capacity, making the upper limit of the energy-to-power ratio of a VFB virtually unlimited.
This makes the VFB a very adaptable energy storage system, with kilowatt capacities ideal for residential and commercial applications and megawatt capacities for the power grid and stand-alone storage systems for solar/wind farm installations.
Another unique attribute of a VFB is the fact that the electrolyte is stored externally from the battery’s electrode or cellblock, which prevents the self-discharging that occurs in other battery systems.
Key Advancements in the VFB to Reduce Size and Cost
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have increased the VFBs energy storage capacity by 70 percent and expanded the temperature range in which they operate to between 23 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 to 50 Celsius) from between 50 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 40 degrees Celsius). This noteworthy advancement means that smaller tanks can be used to generate the same amount of power as larger tanks filled with the old electrolyte and greatly reduce the need for costly cooling and heating systems. Researchers believe this advancement could significantly reduce the size and cost of the VFB.
Vanadium for Batteries and Energy Storage
The Vanadium Flow Battery (VFB) is a leading energy storage system which requires large amounts of high purity (greater than 98.4%), battery-grade vanadium. This type of vanadium is not readily available today. The increasing evidence in the marketplace of key developments in VFB technology is expected to result in the acceleration of commercial applications of vanadium-based battery technologies.
A great opportunity exists for vanadium producers who can provide the necessary high purity, battery-grade vanadium required by the VFBs. Energizer Resources (TSX:EGZ) is uniquely positioning itself to meet the new anticipated demand for high purity, battery-grade vanadium with its Green Giant project.
More and More Evidence of VFBs in the Marketplace
Every week, there is more and more evidence of the growing prominence of vanadium-based technologies in the marketplace, including news that General Electric has agreed to acquire Converteam, a world leader in power conversion technologies, which is collaborating with Prudent Energy to design and install VFBs for power grids in both China and the USA this year.
As mentioned in the Company’s previous press releases, there have been considerable developments in the advancement of vanadium flow battery technology in recent months. Three laboratories on three different continents have announced advancements in the development of VFBs for grid storage applications. These advancements are expected to both reduce the size and cost of the VFB, and in turn, accelerate their implementation on a commercial level:
- The United States Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) announced the ability to increase the energy storage capacity of the VFB by 70% and to expand the temperature range in which they operate by modifying the battery’s electrolyte solution. This advancement will allow the size of the VFB to be reduced, while generating the same amount of power storage and output, and will allow the VFB to work in a wider temperature range while maintaining its high (approximately 87%) efficiency.
PNNL’s announcement can be read in its entirety at http://www.pnl.gov/news/release.aspx?id=855
Through the PNNL, the United States Department of Energy has committed millions of research dollars towards further advancement and development of the vanadium flow battery. As mentioned in President Obama’s speech at the Forum for Small Business in Cleveland, Ohio, the Department of Energy is helping fund the installation of the largest VFB in North America at a municipal power plant in Painesville, Ohio.
- Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, the German government’s research organization that employs around 18,000 scientists and engineers, announced on March 31, 2011 that they are working to expedite the development of vanadium flow batteries.
Researchers demonstrated the operation of a VFB at the Hanover Fair (Hannover Messe), the world’s foremost technology and energy event, which is held in Hanover, Germany each year. The Fraunhofer Institute announced their goal to build a 20 MWh capacity VFB installation, which would represent the world’s largest VFB. A VFB this size would utilize approximately 33 tonnes of battery-grade vanadium (V2O5) and would provide enough energy to supply power to roughly 2000 households for an entire day.
The full text of this announcement can be read at http://www.fraunhofer.de/en/
The Fraunhofer Institute has a proven history of success in its hundreds of commercial enterprises, inventions and patents, including the MP3 audio and the H264/MPEG-4 video compression algorithms.
- The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), China’s largest and state-owned science and research institute, have discovered a new nanofiltration membrane material that enhances the efficiency of VFBs making them a more viable tool for large-scale energy storage. Researchers found that by utilizing a new material, they could lower the cost of the membrane without sacrificing the performance or efficiency of the VFB.
The membrane serves as the facilitator of energy transfer in a VFB, allowing energy in the form of ions to pass from one side of the battery to the other during charge-discharge cycles, which enables the VFB to release power.
The CAS announcement can be read in its entirety at http://rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2011/April/13041101.asp.
The CAS has created hundreds of commercial enterprises, including with Lenovo Corporation (which purchased IBM’s PC Division).
Vanadium Flow Batteries – Nearing the Tipping Point
The vanadium electrolyte and the membrane are the two most expensive components in a VFB. Together they represent approximately 50% of the cost of the battery. The advancements in the development of the VFBs by the leading research institutes of PNNL, Fraunhofer, and CAS are expected to both reduce the size and cost of the VFB, and in turn, accelerate their implementation on a commercial level.
The increasing evidence in the marketplace of key developments in VFB technology is expected to result in the acceleration of commercial applications of vanadium-based battery technologies and in turn, may signal that the tipping point for vanadium flow batteries is near.
Off Take Potential
Everyone is talking about vanadium – even U.S. President Barack Obama. At a Presidential roundtable discussion at Cleveland State University, President Obama commented on the efforts of Painesville, Ohio’s power system and its partners in building a massive energy storage system for the city, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Program, using vanadium flow battery technology. President Obama joked that “vanadium redox fuel cells is one of the coolest things I’ve ever said out loud”. President Obama continued to say that this “next generation energy storage system will help families and businesses cut down on energy waste, save money and reduce dangerous carbon emissions”.
Vanadium is becoming one of the most sought after metals in the world. China recently announced that the development of the country’s vanadium industry will be a top priority in the next 5 years. Approximately 48%of the world’s vanadium supply comes from China. China has gone from being the world’s largest exporter of vanadium to the world’s largest consumer. As China’s urbanization expansion continues, the country’s demand for vanadium for steel use alone is expected to remain strong for the next 10 to 20 years. Vanadium is attracting the attention of more and more investors, analysts and the mining industry in general. Two prominent Canadian mining publications, The Northern Miner and Resource World Magazine, are profiling vanadium as lead stories. The Northern Miner’s February 29 to March 6, 2011 edition leads with a feature entitled, “Spotlight on Vanadium”, while Resource World Magazine’s April Issue focused on vanadium with a special industry feature.
Within 10 Years…
Energy storage is predicted to be a $600 billion industry (Source: Piper Jaffray Energy Report 2009).
Lithium Batteries in Electric Vehicles
- Industry analysts forecast 250 million electric cars by 2020
- 10% of that = 25 million cars x 23kg V2O5 per battery = 575,000 tonnes V2O5
- 575M x .023 tonnes V2O5 or 54% of the current annual world supply each year, for 10 years (575K ÷ 107K ÷ 10 years) (Valence Technologies)
. Residential Applications of VFBs
- An average home uses approx. 25-35 kilowatt hours (kWh) per day.
- A 100kWh VFB can supply an average home with power for 2-3 days.
- Each 100kWh VFB requires ~800kg (1760 lbs.) of V2O5. There are approximately 675 million households in North America, EU and China
- If 3% of those households (20 million households) used a 100KWh VFB = 16.2 million tonnes V2O5(20.25M x .8 tonnes V2O5) or 15 times the current annual world supply each year, for 10 years (20.25M ÷ 107K ÷ 10 years)
Commercial Applications of VFBs
- Each 1 megawatt hour (MWh) VFB requires ~ 10 tonnes of V2O5
- 2 million commercial locations worldwide utilize a 1MWh VFB = 20 million tonnes V2O5 (2M locations x 10 tonnes V2O5 each) or 18.7 times the current annual world supply each year, for 10 years (20M ÷ 107K ÷ 10 years)
US Energy Consumption
- The United States’ energy consumption in 2008 was 3.74 billion MWh.
- The Obama Administration’s energy mandate is to have 20% of the power grid consumption (or 748 million MWh) be sourced from renewable energy.
- If just 0.5% of the 748 million MWh was stored in a 8MWh capacity VFB, you would have 467,500 8MWh VFBs = 37.4 million tonnes V2O5 (748M x 0.5% = 3.74M MWh x 10 tonnes V2O5each) or 35 times the current annual world supply each year, for 10 years (37.4M ÷ 107K ÷ 10 years)