Rocketing vanadium price primed for 'Elon Musk moment'

Spiking cobalt and lithium demand from booming sales of electric vehicles grabs all the headlines, partly thanks to Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s propensity to make news, but another battery metal has actually experienced more action this year.

Vanadium is primarily used to strengthen steel (today it makes up more than 90% of the market) and prices for ferro-vanadium hit decade highs this month.

Vanadium pentoxide (V2O5) which makes its way into so-called vanadium redox flow batteries used in energy storage systems breached $20 a pound for the first time since 2005 this month. That’s a four-fold increase from the start of 2017.

Simon Moores of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a battery materials research and price discovery provider based out of London, says the recent success of lithium ion batteries being deployed in increasing larger systems that are exceeding 1GWh has brought to light the huge potential of the market for all types of battery technologies.

Vanadium flow batteries have lifespans of over 20 years without capacity loss, are non-flammable and can operate at any temperature. Another advantage over lithium ion is that this type of battery can be charged and discharged simultaneously making it highly suitable for large-scale storage from renewable sources such as solar and wind when connected to an electricity grid. Main downside is low energy density which means comparatively large installations needed.

“If a vanadium battery producer steps forward with bold plans to produce vanadium flow at mass scale, giving the industry its Elon Musk or lithium ion moment, the potential for the technology to be the second most deployed ESS battery in the world is there,” says Moores.

“Raw material self sufficiency is a critical component to this. At least a third of the cost of a vanadium flow battery is vanadium pentoxide which makes up the liquid electrolyte.

“If companies are thinking of creating the Gigafactory of vanadium flow batteries, they will either need to own a mine or implement a new pricing system where the fully recyclable vanadium in the battery is leased."

Should all the supply chain challenges be solved, Benchmark believes 25% of the energy storage market is up for grabs in 2028. Benchmark forecasts that the energy storage market will then be between 100GWh to 120GWh in size.

The amount of V2O5 in a single MWh is just under 10 tonnes. South Africa, China and Russia produce more than 80% of the world’s vanadium, mostly as a byproduct of magnetite mining and in the steelmaking process. Only around 80,000 tonnes of vanadium was produced last year.