A rare earth mining operation in China’s Jiangsu province

A rare earth metal called vanadium could provide an energy storage solution for some of the challenges renewable energy sources face. The intermittent nature of wind and solar power can make these distributed sources difficult for utilities to manage within the electrical grid. Vanadium flow batteries can accommodate renewable energy by storing massive amounts of electricity and releasing it into the grid as needed when demand increases.

Although vanadium is most commonly used as an alloying metal for strengthening steel, its energy storage history dates back to the 1970s when NASA researchers experimented with flow batteries. The battery technology that interests companies today was patented by the University of New South Wales in Australia in 1986 and has undergone extensive research and development since.

In a recent interview with Breaking Energy, American Vanadium President and CEO Bill Radvak discussed how technology and market fundamentals combined to improve the outlook for vanadium production. Demand for the metal appears set to increase, due in large part to Chinese building code updates that require higher quality vanadium-alloy steel in new construction. And the need for advanced battery technology in the renewable energy space could create a new market for the commodity.

Vanadium flow batteries use a reversible chemical reaction that allows recharging without replacing the active chemicals. The batteries can also be recharged to 100% of their capacity, as opposed to around 70% for lithium and roughly 35% for lead-based batteries. Increasing the size of the containment vessels that hold the vanadium in a dilute sulfuric acid solution can reportedly achieve grid-scale storage. A flow battery installation for mass power storage might look similar to a tank farm at a modern petroleum bulk storage facility.

A Market Poised for Growth

Traditionally an oversupplied market, vanadium has been inexpensive compared to more widely-traded metals. Given the limited price risk — $6 to $7 per pound — steel companies typically purchase vanadium via short-term contracts. Radvak said this dynamic appears to be shifting.

Vanadium prices are set to rise gradually as demand from steel producers and battery manufacturers grows. Increased price volatility is expected to accompany greater consumption and motivate purchasers to secure longer term purchase agreements.

For more Breaking Energy coverage on rare earth metals and what the US government is doing to secure supply, read here

Radvak’s company hopes to seize this opportunity to supply existing vanadium users such as the steel, aerospace and defense industries, as well as the burgeoning energy storage market through joint ventures with battery companies.

First “Green” Mine in the US

American Vanadium is currently at the permitting phase of a Nevada-based vanadium production project, which includes obtaining approval for an onsite micro-grid that would use wind and solar in conjunction with vanadium flow battery storage. The facility would service mining activity and serve as a demonstration plant for the technology. Radvak said designers and investors are ready to begin work once the permits are received in about two to three years.