Vanadium strengths go beyond alloys
Critical Minerals Alliances 2022 - September 12, 2022
Last updated 9/20/2022 at 4:35am
Flow batteries a major potential future use of alloying metal
Vanadium, a metal best known for its role in making extremely tough steel used in tools and auto parts, is emerging as a metal that could allay shortages of lithium, nickel, and other ingredients needed for the batteries powering electric vehicles. While vanadium flow batteries will not be powering EVs anytime soon, this technology could diversify energy storage by serving as an alternative to lithium-ion batteries for the large-scale storage of electricity from renewables.
"This emerging grid-scale storage technology has great commercial and energy security potential," said Allan Tuan, commercialization manager for energy, grid, and advanced fuel research at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Taking advantage of vanadium's ability to exist in a solution in four different oxidation states and using this property to make a battery that needs just one element for both the positive and negative electrolyte solutions, vanadium redox flow batteries have shown the potential to be the superior choice for large-scale energy storage.
Vanadium redox batteries, or VRFBs, offer several advantages – ease of scalability, reliability, flexibility, quick response, and safety – over lithium-ion and other batteries for keeping energy grids energized and stable.
The amount of energy a VRFB can store is only limited by the size of the storage tanks built to hold the vanadium electrolytes, which are separated by a membrane that allows vanadium electrons to flow back and forth during charging and discharging.
"The emerging need for large-scale electricity storage makes vanadium redox flow batteries a major potential future use of vanadium," USGS wrote. "Because of their large-scale storage capacity, development of VRBs could prompt increases in the use of wind, solar, and other renewable, intermittent power sources."
Above the touted superiorities, using flow batteries for large-scale stationary energy storage would relieve some of the stress off lithium-ion battery supply chains that are already being scaled up at a tremendous rate to keep pace with the manufacturing of hundreds of millions of EVs expected to be traveling global highways within two decades.
Much like the minerals and metals needed for lithium-ion batteries, the growth of the renewable energy sector could drive unprecedented new demand for vanadium.
China and Russia, however, accounted for roughly 84% of the vanadium produced during 2021. The balance was mined in Brazil and South Africa.
While a trifle of vanadium was produced from waste materials in North America last year, Canada and the United States each host rich deposits of this steel strengthening and emerging battery metal.
Superior vanadium steel
Vanadium is following the same career path as nickel – from an alloy metal used to make superior steels to an ingredient critical to the global transition to electric transportation charged with renewable energy.
The commercialization of vanadium flow batteries, however, lags way behind the lithium-ion batteries that are demanding massive new supplies of nickel.
The USGS estimates that 94% of the roughly 4,500 metric tons of vanadium consumed in the U.S. during 2021 was used in steel and other alloys.
Vanadium traces its alloying legacy back to the earliest days of the 20th century, when manufacturers in Europe began taking advantage of the lighter, more durable, and flexible vanadium steels to give their racecars an edge.
This inspired Henry Ford to use vanadium steel in the crankshafts, springs, wheel spindles, and other stressed parts in its famed Model T in 1908.
These characteristics were used to tout "Ford superiority" in car building at the time. More than a century later, the "Built Ford Tough" slogan for the American automaker's trucks is an echo of the strength vanadium imparted to the Model T.
The chrome-vanadium proudly stamped on tools found in nearly any hardware store is a more direct reference to the toughness vanadium imparts to steels used to make tools and a wide range of other products where strength is of utmost importance.
"The high-strength, low-alloy (HSLA) steels containing vanadium are widely used for the construction of auto parts, buildings, bridges, cranes, pipelines, rail cars, ships, and truck bodies, including armor plating for military vehicles," the USGS wrote.
While other metals could replace ferrovanadium steel alloys, it is typically not worth the costs and energy required to create steel that can compete with those imbued with vanadium's properties.
Steel, however, is not the only alloy enhanced by vanadium. When it comes to strength-to-weight ratio, titanium-vanadium alloys are among the best materials ever engineered. This is invaluable to an aerospace sector seeking to shave pounds of aircraft and space vehicles without sacrificing durability.
"Vanadium, when combined with titanium, produces a stronger and more stable alloy, and when combined with aluminum produces a material suitable for jet engines and high-speed airframes," USGS inked in the vanadium section of a 2018 report on critical minerals. "No acceptable substitutes exist for vanadium in aerospace titanium alloys."
Disruptive battery tech
While strong and stable alloys currently drive the market for vanadium, emerging vanadium redox flow battery technologies have the potential to be a market disruptor for this metal.
Global Industry Analysts Inc., a California-based market research firm, forecasts that the vanadium flow battery market will rocket to US$592 million by 2026, more than double the estimated US$238 million this year.
"The market is expected to be driven primarily by factors, such as their lower environmental impact in terms of battery disposal and higher energy capacity owing to the presence of larger tanks for electrolyte storage," GIA penned in its vanadium redox battery report. "These batteries contain no toxic or highly reactive substance and pose no fire hazard, making them more environment-friendly as compared to lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries."
The market analytical firm, however, says VRFBs suffer from two disadvantages that are holding the technology back – higher capital costs and lower energy density.
DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has been carrying out research aimed at overcoming these obstacles.
PNNL, which has partnered with two companies that are bringing this technology to market, offered a third and final semi-exclusive vanadium battery technology license earlier this year.
"We are eager to partner with additional industry partners to bring this technology to market and to support expanded use of renewable energies on the grid," said Tuan.
With the growing need for grid-scale storage of intermittent solar- and wind-generated electricity, utilities are expected to be a major market for vanadium redox batteries.
GIA expects 830 gigawatt-hours of wind energy and 970 GWh of solar energy to be added to energy grids by 2025, which is likely to drive the adoption of vanadium redox batteries in the coming years.
U.S. vanadium flow batteries
Getting ahead of the expected growing demand for vanadium redox flow batteries in North America, Austria-based Enerox GmbH, better known as CellCube, has established a U.S. subsidiary in Colorado and cut a deal to buy electrolyte for its VRFBs from Arkansas.
"With our proven and bankable technology, we are capable to accelerate the energy transition and help achieving challenging climate targets," said Alexander Schoenfeldt, CEO of CellCube Austria and USA. "Being a global leader in this space we are very enthusiastic about our new presence in North America, as it will allow us to build and use local supply chain and engage with our business and R&D partners in the U.S. more easily. As a result, we will offer the best-in-class product in North America in a very sustainable and innovative way."
While CellCube announced the opening of its Denver office in May, the Austrian battery manufacturer has been among the most active participants in scaling up VRFBs in North America in recent years.
This includes contracts to purchase ultra-high-purity electrolyte from U.S. Vanadium LLC's facility in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
"As part of our go-to-market in North America, we want to use electrolyte which has been regionally processed within North America ensuring long-term deliverability at a competitive price," said Schoenfeldt.
After an expansion completed in February, which was supported by CellCube, U.S. Vanadium's plant has the capacity to produce 4 million liters of ultra-high-purity electrolyte per year.
The electrolyte and other high-purity vanadium-based products produced at the Arkansas facility are recovered from a variety of post-industrial waste streams imported by U.S. Vanadium. This means the electrolyte it produces has a much smaller carbon footprint than if it were generated from primary vanadium mining operations, a climate advantage that will be passed on to the renewable energy projects that utilize the electrolyte in their storage systems.
"We are pleased to have secured access to U.S. Vanadium's ultra-high pure electrolyte long-term, which in combination with our own post-production handling in the U.S. marks the opening of a new era of cooperation in the industry," Schoenfeldt added.
CellCube says the demand for the long-duration energy storage solutions that vanadium batteries offer has reached an all-time high, especially following the more aggressive climate commitments made by most countries during the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.
The Austrian company says the microgrid market in the U.S. is a significant contributor to exploding demand that is creating a vanadium supply situation.
CellCube's first U.S. installation is an eight-megawatt-hour VRFB microgrid system at an industrial manufacturing site near Chicago. At the time, CellCube entered into an agreement to purchase 580,000 liters of high-purity electrolyte per year from U.S. Vanadium.
Under a newly expanded agreement reached in March, CellCube can purchase up to 3 million liters of U.S. Vanadium electrolyte per year.
"This agreement reflects today's rapidly accelerating growth of the vanadium redox flow battery industry and of U.S. Vanadium's ability to supply VRFB manufacturers with Made-in-America ultra-high-purity electrolyte," said U.S. Vanadium CEO Mark Smith. "We look forward to supplying CellCube, and customers around the world, with the finest and highest purity VRFB electrolyte now available on the market."
In addition to securing a reasonably priced supply during what is expected to be a competitive market, CellCube says the purchase agreement ensures the quality and consistency of the electrolyte going into its vanadium batteries.
"This move is aimed at more standardization of electrolyte and its processing to achieve high quality performance for a 20-year-plus operation without any capacity loss," Schoenfeldt said.
Energy fuels from Utah
While there was no vanadium mined in the U.S. or Canada during 2021, one operation in Utah resumed production earlier this year, and both countries have the potential to produce much more of the alloying battery metal.
In April, Energy Fuels Inc. announced that it had shipped vanadium, rare earths, and uranium – a trifecta of mineral products critical to the production, storage, and use of low-carbon energy – from its White Mesa Mill in Utah.
"We believe we are moving faster than any other company in the U.S. on restoring low-cost, domestic critical material supply chains," said Energy Fuels President and CEO Mark Chalmers.
The vanadium pentoxide shipped from White Mesa was not destined for batteries. Instead, the critical metal was shipped to the Bear Metallurgical Company in Pennsylvania for conversion to ferrovanadium, which will be sold into the steel and specialty alloys industries.
"At Energy Fuels, we don't just talk about restoring critical domestic supply chains. We innovate, invest, and work hard to actually do it, all to the highest environmental, human health, and human rights standards in the world," said Energy Fuels President and CEO Mark Chalmers.