Veni, Vidi, Vanadium: The Key To Steel

May 26, 2009

 

The Prospects For Vanadium

With well over 90% of the world's vanadium going into steel, it is hardly surprising that its fortunes are tied closely to that of steel production in general. And right now, that means China.

Because whatever the prognosis may be for Japan and the Western economies, it seems likely that, despite current economic conditions, development in China is set to continue. And that development will continue to need steel (most probably increasing amounts of China's own steel), which in turn, needs vanadium.

It also seems likely that, in addition to consuming more of its own steel, China will also seek to export more of its domestically produced steel. In the past, of the major steel-producing nations, China has used the least vanadium in each ton of steel it has produced - U.S. usage has, historically, been the highest. If, therefore, China is going to go after a greater share of the steel export market, in order to ensure that the quality of its steel matches (and is competitive with) what is currently out there, it is going to have to increase the vanadium content of its export steels. According to a recent presentation by the industry expert Robert M. Bunting of Stratcor, there are already signs that this is happening.

With vanadium's importance in the production of high-strength and specialty steels, as use of these grows, so too does demand for the metal itself. Initiatives like the Vanadium Technology Partnership, a "cooperative relationship between the vanadium microalloyed steel industry and the U.S. Army" that seeks to exploit, in weapons systems and infrastructure, amongst other things, the exceptional strength-to-weight ratios of vanadium-alloyed steels, attest to the importance of these steels - not least in the defense industry.

Outside the defense industry, some of the potentially important roles for vanadium "in the twenty first century" (as identified by VANITEC) include its use in:

  • Vanadium steels for high-energy, high-speed autogenous welding
  • Vanadium steels in electric generating plant of the future
  • Large-scale energy storage systems
  • Fusion reactors
  • Ultra-light, ultra-strong complex alloys for aircraft
  • Metal matrix composites for aeroengine components
  • Vanadium high-carbon gray cast irons for disc brakes and drums

 

Of special interest currently are the "large-scale energy storage systems," in particular vanadium redox-flow batteries, not least because these last are environmentally friendly. Developed at the University of New South Wales back in the '80s, these batteries exploit vanadium's chemical properties to make very large electric batteries. Not only can these batteries store charge for very long periods (and, with little ensuing damage, be left discharged for very long periods), they are also easily scalable - just by increasing their size or number.

Over and above all these, as Peter Nicholson, trading director at London Chemicals & Resources Ltd in London, says of the metal: "Being more difficult to isolate than many other industrial metals, vanadium has only been in large-scale commercial production relatively recently (20th century). Its properties and applications are still being researched and new applications continue to be discovered."

Currently, even though the prices both of ferro-vanadium and vanadium pentoxide may have rebounded markedly since the beginning of May (not least because of tight supply in the nearby months), the market in general is still oversupplied. With the downturn in steel consumption, there has certainly been a buildup in vanadium product inventory, but there may, also, have been a buildup of stocks of unprocessed vanadium-bearing slag from steelmaking operations, particularly in China.

 

Investment Opportunities

Are there any possibilities in vanadium? The major publicly traded producers are possibilities, but, as so often with the minor metals, vanadium is just one small fraction of their overall businesses.

Indeed, pure plays in the metal are hard to find.

 

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