Vincent Algar, Managing Director, Australian Vanadium Limited
Vanadium is not a word many people are familiar with and yet you use the metal every day in many ways. Whether it’s in the lightweight bicycle you ride, the steel structure of the building you work in or the car you drive. It’s vanadium’s ability to strengthen steel, whilst at the same time making it lighter which results in the steel market being the primary driver for its demand. As countries such as China and India seek to make their buildings safer, the demand for vanadium continues to rise. With demand outstripping supply, the price of vanadium has fluctuated recently, rising to over US$30/lb at the end of 2018 from a low of around US$3/ lb four years ago.
Originally invented at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia by Professor Maria Skyllas- Kazacos, the vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB) is based on redox fuel cell technology created by NASA in the 1970s. VRFBs are usually paired with wind or solar generation and can store many hours of energy which can be shifted to a time when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. They can also smooth fluctuations in the generation of energy to provide a consistent delivery of energy.
Most people are familiar with managing their mobile phone battery charge and how the older the phone gets the shorter the times between charges become, this is due to the battery degrading through each cycle of use.
With the rising price of vanadium, one would assume that the price of the vrfbs would become too expensive, but the opposite has occurred
VRFBs don’t suffer from degradation in performance and can by fully cycled more than once per day. They are also non-flammable and have a 20+ year lifespan. Lithium and vanadium both have their strengths and weaknesses and it’s best to use the right solution for the particular energy requirements.
With the rising price of vanadium, one would assume that the price of the VRFBs would become too expensive, but the opposite has occurred. There are more than 20 manufacturers globally and each has come up with innovation to reduce costs. For example, some of the manufacturers now offer an option to lease the vanadium electrolyte rather than purchase as part of the capital cost of the battery. Because the vanadium electrolyte doesn’t degrade, it retains its value and at the end of the battery or project’s life, it can be re-used in a different battery or reduced back to vanadium pentoxide to be added to steel.
From a miner’s perspective, VRFBs have a role to play on the minesite and in particular to provide energy for mine camps. The load in a mine camp lends itself to energy storage, with the power demand sitting mainly in the morning and evening, meaning that the peak sunlight hours provide the energy generation which can then be stored and shifted to these times. The additional benefit of a lack of noise from the battery provides a healthier sleeping environment than a diesel generator.
Most of the world’s supply of vanadium currently comes from Largo Resources in Brazil, Bushveld Minerals in South Africa and mines in Russia and China. Russian and Chinese production is mainly as a by-product of steel making. With the rise in vanadium price in 2018, we saw a flurry of activity in the exploration space, but not many of these will succeed. The Australian Vanadium Project in Western Australia is a high-grade deposit which can be processed using traditional methods. The company’s Pre- Feasibility Study, released in December 2018, showed the project to be economically viable, with operating costs in the lower quartile and comparable with producing global mines. Vanadium isn’t a simple metal to extract, so AVL has built a team of experts in the field to help bring the mine into production.