Veni, Vidi, Vanadium: The Key To Steel

May 26, 2009

An alloy used in the Model T faces increasing demand from a China-driven market.

  • What is vanadium?
  • Where does it come from?
  • How can you invest?


Back in March 2006, Asahi Soft Drinks, together with Asahi Breweries, Tokyo Medical University and Nihon Pharmaceutical University, announced the results of research they had recently undertaken regarding vanadium and diabetes. Using the results of experiments on mice, the four concluded that "water that natually [sic] contains vanadium is beneficial to the prevention and control of metabolic syndromes, including diabetes." Subsequently, Asahi Soft Drinks started to sell Vanadium Tennen Mizu, i.e., natural mineral water with added vanadium. You can still buy it in supermarkets in Tokyo.

Soft drinks aside, vanadium's dominant use, both in the U.S. and globally, is as an alloy for iron and steel - some 92% of vanadium was used in steel in 2008, according to the USGS.


U.S. Consumption of Vanadium as an Alloy in Steel (2008)

Source: USGS


In addition, vanadium is used in titanium-aluminum-vanadium alloys, nonsteel alloys, catalysts, pigments, frits and glass.


Whence The Vanadium?

Vanadium is recovered in three basic ways.

In the first instance, vanadium is recovered directly from vanadiferous ores and, indirectly, from titaniferous magnetite ores, siltstone and uraniferous sandstone, in all of which it occurs naturally.

The main method of recovering vanadium globally, however, is from the vanadium-bearing slag associated with steelmaking using titaniferous magnetite ores, i.e., what's left over when the pig iron has been cast. Depending upon its source, this slag can contain anywhere from 10% to 25% vanadium pentoxide (V2O5). Recovered by this route, the vanadium is converted either into ferro-vanadium or vanadates and vanadium oxides. Some 60% of the world's vanadium comes from the vanadium-bearing slag left over from casting pig iron.

Finally, in addition to being recovered not only both from power plant ashes and spent catalysts, the metal is also recovered from such things as tar sands, oil shale, crude oil and bauxite.


Geographic Location

South Africa, China and Russia remain the world's largest sources of vanadium. While vanadium has not been mined in the U.S. since the early '90s, there are a number of U.S. companies that produce ferro-vanadium, vanadium pentoxide and other vanadium compounds, with the vanadium for these being sourced, predominantly, from reprocessed spent catalysts, petroleum residues and the fly ash from oil-burning power stations. On occasion, over the last nine years or so, some quantities of vanadiferous slag have been imported into the U.S. and used as feedstock, but slag is certainly not the primary source of vanadium in the U.S. as it is elsewhere globally.


Estimated World Production: 2004-2008 (Tonnes of Contained Vanadium)

Source: USGS

Notes:   1) Production from ores, concentrates and slag; 2) China: Estimated 40% of vanadium recovered from vanadiferous slag


Uses: Steel, Etc.

Rather than being just a good general alloying element, vanadium is, for the most part, used in high-strength and specialty steels that require both specific characteristics and properties.

Why vanadium? Back in December 1996, P S Mitchell, then chairman of the Vanadium International Technical Committee (VANITEC), described some of the important reasons thusly: "Among the reasons for using vanadium in steel are good castability, good rollability, reduced roll wear, relative insensitivity to finish rolling temperature in structural steels, good weldability of structural steels and the ability to use vanadium-containing medium carbon steels in the as-forged state."


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