(Reuters) - A little-known metal used in steelmaking could emerge as a game-changer for battery technology, raising the prospect of an investment boom like the one that lifted rare earths out of obscurity last year.
Here are some facts about vanadium, a metal that has been used in steelmaking for decades and is now gaining traction in green technology applications.
Vanadium is a strong, but ductile silver-gray metal that is commonly used to make steel stronger and lighter. The metal has been used for decades in construction and automaking.
Vanadium is also used to make titanium alloys for the aerospace industry, a use for which there is no substitute.
The metal was named after Vanadis, the Germanic goddess of beauty and fertility.
Vanadium redox flow batteries are large, rechargable batteries that use tanks of liquid and charged vanadium electrolytes to produce and store energy.
Examples of the technology operate in powerplants in the United States, Asia and Europe.
Vanadium can take on multiple charges, so both sides of the battery use the same material. There is no damage if the battery solution leaks, so the batteries can last for about 20 years.
Vanadium flow batteries are flexible in that they can be small enough to power a single solar panel or large enough to support an entire grid. The capacity of a battery is easily expanded by simply adding more solution.
Vanadium has been used to make cars lighter and stronger since the early 1900s when Henry Ford added vanadium to the steel for the Ford Model T.
Now, vanadium is being explored as alternative cathode for lithium-ion batteries. Lithium vanadium batteries charge far faster and are more powerful than other batteries.
The technology has not yet been proven on a commercial scale. China’s BYD and Japan’s Subaru are both working on near-term electric vehicles with lithium vanadium batteries.
Vanadium is mined a byproduct of steel smelter slag and is found in shale deposits.
The top three vanadium producers are China, South Africa and Russia. Venezuela and Canada produce some vanadium as a byproduct of oil and gas production.
Other production in North America comes from spent catalysts and from uranium mines.
A handful of small Canadian miners - American Vanadium, Largo Resources, Apella Resources and Energizer Resources - are developing new deposits around the world.
Reporting by Julie Gordon; editing by Janet Guttsman