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Last weekend’s Elko Daily Free Press had a column detailing the Iron Point Vanadium Project, 22 miles east of the city of Winnemucca. There, vanadium is found at a level of 0.6%, a value sufficient enough to have a strong effect on the economics of an excavation project.

The company undertaking this venture, Victory Metals, has released assays from the first eight reverse circulation holes that show this may turn into a big project for the area. Online sources quote Victory Metals’ CEO Collin Kettell saying: “We’ve essentially established what looks to be the largest vanadium footprint in the United States.”

Vanadium is listed as a strategic metal for the United States. It is used extensively in the steel industry and as a catalyst for making chemicals. Vanadium can also be used as a battery metal and is being consumed at a rapid rate in China to support clean, baseload power from renewable resources. Because the US has virtually no internal vanadium sources, the price jump of 150% over the last two years has many feeling worried about supply and demand.

Let’s take a look at the element.

Vanadium is a hard, silvery-grey, ductile and malleable transition metal. It is the 20th most abundant element in the earth’s crust making it more abundant than nickel, zinc or even copper. Vanadium compounds occur naturally in about 65 different minerals with various degrees of supply. The sulfide, VS4, patronite, was one of the first ores of economic commercial value and was mined extensively in the Minas Ragra near Junín, Cerro de Pasco, Peru back in the early days of the 20th century. After that, when radioactive materials became import, the uranium ore, carnotite (K2(UO2)2(VO4)2) became a source of the metal as a by-product of uranium production.

Today, vanadium is mined mostly in South Africa, China, and Russia and these three countries supply 97% of the worlds needs. Vanadinite, an insoluble lead ore, Pb5(VO4)3Cl, forms beautiful bright orange dipyramidal crystals that often resemble rubies although they are much more brittle. Vanadinite is one of the main industrial ores of the element now as well as a minor source of lead. Tiny crystals of native vanadium metal can be found among fumaroles around Colima, an active volcano in Western Mexico.

The discovery and extraction of vanadium metal quite is interesting. Andrés Manuel del Río discovered compounds of vanadium in 1801 in Mexico by analyzing a new lead-bearing mineral he called “brown lead,” and presumed it contained a new element.

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Vanadium chloride was first compounded in 1830 by the Swedish chemist Nils Gabriel Sefström, who thereby proved that a new element certainly was involved. He named the element “vanadium” after Vanadis, the Scandinavian goddess of beauty and fertility.

Like chromium, many of the salts of vanadium show intense colors. By 1867 Sir Henry Roscoe obtained the pure metal using hydrogen reduction of the dichloride. Today, vanadium metal is obtained by roasting the crushed ore with NaCl producing sodium metavanadate (NaVO3), which in an acid solution produces “red cake”, a polyvanadate salt. The precipitate is easily reduced using metallic calcium.

The first large industrial need for vanadium was by the Ford Motor Company who used it to alloy steel for the chassis of their Model T automobiles. When vanadium is added to steel stable hard nitrides and carbides are formed yielding a metal with a much higher tensile strength. Vanadium steel alloys thus allow significant weight reduction for axels, crankshafts and vehicle support members.

Vanadium compounds are also used extensively as catalysts. Vanadium pentoxide, V2O5, has the ability to convert sulfur dioxide gas to sulfur trioxide in the manufacturing of sulfuric acid. It is also used in the petroleum industry for the production of propane. Somehow the structure on the surface encourages chemical reactions to take place without using up the metal in the process. Another oxide of vanadium, vanadium dioxide VO2, is used in the production of exotic glass coatings due to its ability to block infrared radiation.

The rechargeable redox battery, quickly becoming popular at power stations, employs vanadium ions in different oxidation states to store chemical potential energy. The main benefit of a vanadium battery is that it can offer almost unlimited energy capacity simply by using larger electrolyte storage tanks. It also can be left completely discharged for long periods with no ill effect. Because of these advantages, they are often used for back-up power grids.

There is some evidence that high doses of vanadyl sulfate (100 mg daily) might improve the way people with type 2 diabetes use insulin, the hormone that processes sugar. The study suggested that high-dose vanadium might actually lower blood sugar.

Now, Nevada will have its own vanadium mine.

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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