Mineral Resource of the Month: Vanadium

by U.S. Geological Survey
Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Désirée E. Polyak, a mineral commodity specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey, compiled the following information on vanadium, a silvery gray, soft ductile metal important in steel.

Vanadium's primary use is as a hardening agent in steel that is often used to make tools. Credit: ©Ildar Sagdejev, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Vanadium was first discovered by Andrés Manuel del Río in Mexico City in 1801. He called it erythronium, from the Greek word erythros, meaning red, for the color that it turned when it was heated. However, it wasn’t immediately accepted as a new element. Four years later, French chemist Hippolyte Victor Collet-Descotils declared that del Río’s new element was only impure chromium. Accepting Collet-Descotils' assessment, del Río withdrew his claim. In 1831, Swedish chemist Nils Gabriel Sefström rediscovered vanadium in a new oxide while working with iron ores. In the same year, German chemist Friedrich Wöhler reinvestigated del Río’s original sample and found that Sefström’s vanadium was identical to del Río’s erythronium. In 1867, the metal was first isolated by Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe by reducing vanadium trichloride with hydrogen gas. The vanadium mineral, roscoelite, was named in honor of Roscoe’s work.

Vanadium is only found in nature in chemically combined forms. It is extracted from vanadiferous ores, slags and residues and converted into vanadium pentoxide or trioxide. Most pentoxide is converted into ferrovanadium, an iron-vanadium alloy. A majority of the world’s supply of vanadium comes from mined ore, either directly from mineral concentrates derived from vanadiferous titanomagnetite or from steelmaking slags, where the steel has been produced from vanadiferous titanomagnetite.

Most vanadium is consumed in the form of ferrovanadium, which is used as a means of introducing vanadium into steel. Vanadium primarily serves as a hardening agent in steel: It imparts critical strength, toughness and wear resistance, properties that are especially important in high-strength low-alloy steels. The vanadium market closely follows the steel industry. Non-metallurgical applications for vanadium include catalysts, ceramics, electronics and vanadium-based chemicals.

Vanadium is also becoming widely used in green technology applications, especially in battery technology. The vanadium redox battery (VRB), which consists of an assembly of power cells in which two vanadium-based electrolytes are separated by a proton exchange membrane, is showing considerable promise in stabilizing energy distribution in renewable systems. The main advantages of the VRB are that it can offer almost unlimited capacity simply by using sequentially larger storage tanks; it can be left completely discharged for long periods of time with no ill effects; it can be recharged by replacing the electrolyte if no power source is available to charge it; and it suffers no permanent damage if the electrolytes are accidentally mixed.

For more information on vanadium and other mineral resources, visit http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals.

Vanadium production and consumption

The leading vanadium-producing nations in 2011 were China (37 percent), South Africa (36 percent), and Russia (25 percent).

Secondary vanadium production from various industrial waste materials — such as vanadium-bearing fly ash, residues (from uranium production and from production of hydrocarbons), pig iron slag and spent catalysts — was the leading source of U.S. vanadium production in 2011. A small amount of vanadium is obtained as a co-product from the mining of uraniferous sandstones on the Colorado Plateau.

Metallurgical applications continued to dominate U.S. vanadium use in 2011, accounting for 93 percent of reported consumption.

Fun facts

In 1908, Henry Ford began using vanadium alloy steel in the chassis of the Ford Model T automobile. This was the first extensive commercial use of vanadium metal, and it reduced the weight of the Model T by about half compared to contemporary automobiles of the time.

Vanadium was named after Vanadis, the goddess of beauty in Scandinavian mythology, because of its beautiful multicolored compounds.

Vanadium is corrosion resistant and is sometimes used to make special tubes and pipes for the chemical industry.

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