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Commentary: Vanadium’s electric future hobbled by its industrial past


Date: Dec 7, 2018

LONDON (Reuters) – Last year it was cobalt. The year before that it was lithium.File photo: A Chinese border policeman displays confiscated vanadium in Dandong, Liaoning province. REUTERS/Jacky Chen

This year it is vanadium, another esoteric element of the periodic table that is on a wild bull rampage.

Vanadium prices in China have more than tripled over the course of 2018, albeit with some recent softening from their early-November peaks.

The share price of South Africa’s Bushveld Minerals, one of only a handful of primary producers, has soared from less than 10 pence per share at the start of the year to 42 pence currently.

Vanadium is the latest exotic metal to feel the new energy heat. The vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB) is a breakthrough technology in energy storage, a fast-growing component of the infrastructure needed to accommodate the global shift to renewable energy.

Vanadium’s problem, however, is that there is already a structural shortage of the stuff rooted in its historical co-dependence on the steel sector.

Supply scarcity and the resulting price volatility are the two biggest hurdles to vanadium’s potential bright electric future.

STRENGTHENING DEMAND

Vanadium, named after the Norse god of beauty Vanadis, was only isolated in metallic form in the second half of the 19th century.

But its properties, particularly its capacity to strengthen steel, were quickly appreciated. Henry Ford’s Model T car used the metal in its steel alloy chassis.

Adding just one kilogramme of vanadium to a tonne of steel has the effect of doubling the strength of the steel. That explains why the steel sector accounts for just over 90 percent of global usage, according to analysts at SP Angel. (“Commodity Research Note: Vanadium”, Q1 2018)

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