Why Australia’s rarest of all metals, vanadium, is making a comeback

Over the past three years, thousands of sensors and wiring have gone into thousands of sensors and wires. Electronic sensors and tiny fiber-optic wires, in permanent locations. The hardware components have been carefully weighed…

Why Australia’s rarest of all metals, vanadium, is making a comeback

Over the past three years, thousands of sensors and wiring have gone into thousands of sensors and wires. Electronic sensors and tiny fiber-optic wires, in permanent locations. The hardware components have been carefully weighed down by a grid of millions of small, lightweight, strand-like containers that contain countless tiny capsules of liquid. These capsules are collectively called a vanadium cathode, and their purpose is to convert vanadium ions from one kind of radio-frequency into electricity, at the right voltage.

The technology — and the deployment of the precursor vanadium blocks — is designed to convert negative cesium ions, called radioactive isotopes, such as cesium-, the rarest type of radioactive element, into radio frequency. This is the most efficient way to create radio waves; other low-power radio-frequency devices can use the same material to create similar-frequency signals, but in the long term, there may be a drawback: If your vanadium block is “radiologically faulty,” the material goes bad and the electronic power source shuts down.

Back in 2015, 2014, there was a controversy at Arrium, one of Australia’s largest steelmaking companies, about whether or not to continue manufacturing vanadium blocks for power. Arrium is a major supplier of steel to China. Back in 2011, Arrium decided to scrap a project to build a new plant that could turn iron ore from China into vanadium to make the block. Analysts at Bernstein Research said the project was under-resourced and under-budget. At the time, a few months after the decision, Vanadium also had negative cesium prices, down from $100 per kilogram to under $4. Investors balked. Arrium’s market capitalization collapsed. But the company was able to get by and produce the specialized steel.

In the past few years, Arrium has gotten a bit more help from its steel customers, which shifted production around to maximize profits. For example, Arrium decided to use materials from the Sita Falls in South Africa rather than buying the rocks from the Virginia mines in the U.S. to make steel for its own factories. It also decided to produce more vanadium in Australia, where it is the only and largest producer.

By the end of the year, Arrium will not need to sell any more products of the power blocks. The company’s books will balance, though. In 2014, the company lost $3.38 per share. This year, it is expected to do very well, with profit coming in at a $1.72 per share — almost three times as high as what was lost last year. There are more than 400 tonnes of vanadium in Arrium’s inventories, more than the amount it needs to last a year.

The concern is that the Australian government would shift to take the $1.3 billion budgeted for the technology and instead fund nuclear power. It’s not just that Arrium is a steelmaker, it is a sponge of steel made to manufacture parts for trains and steel mills. The threat of a large budget shift would be economically devastating for Arrium. The story reports that a market researcher, Fabrication Designers International, had warned that if Arrium does not meet production projections, it could take the entire industry down.

The narrow way of seeing it was that the Australian government’s decision to fund a new nuclear power plant instead of vanadium research was contrary to science, that, in the interests of its own vested interest, its government could jeopardize Australia’s emissions and water security. The Australian National Grid is worried that vanadium production would be disrupted.

There is considerable debate over whether or not utility companies or municipal governments or even state governments would start seeing lower profits for transporting electricity from power plants to where it is needed. In fact, some of the market researchers have said that if they were asked to look at the increasing proportion of electricity needed to power the burgeoning (and very dangerous) electric vehicle movement, they would recommend the storage of vanadium vanadium that would deliver that heat much more efficiently.

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