Above: Image © 3dalia, iStockphoto


Symbol: V
Atomic Number: 23
Relative Atomic Mass: 50.9415
Category: Transition metal
Appearance: Soft, gray-white

Vanadium was first discovered in 1801 by Andres del Rio, a Spanish mineralogist working in Mexico City. He named it erythronium, but other scientists weren’t convinced that he had actually discovered a new element. In 1830, Nils Gabriel Sefstrom rediscovered vanadium. Pure vanadium was first isolated by Sir Henry Enfield, an English chemist, in 1867.

Most of the world’s supply of vanadium comes from South Africa, China, and Russia. In nature, vanadium can only be found as part of a compound. These vanadium compounds—not pure vanadium—are also used in various commercial and industrial applications, such as strengthening steel.

However, the most interesting use for vanadium may turn out to be its ability to store power. Researchers are working to develop large-capacity vanadium batteries that could be used to store electricity.

Vanadium in nature and industry

Small amounts of vanadium exist naturally in most soil, water, plants, and animals. For example, sea squirts and other aquatic creatures accumulate vanadium from surrounding seawater. They may use it to produce toxins to defend against predators.

Humans also ingest trace amounts of vanadium through their food. So the element may play an important role in your physiology. However, don’t start taking vanadium supplements! Any health benefits are not fully understood, and exposure to higher-than-normal amounts of vanadium can cause dizziness and nausea, as well as irritation of the lungs, throat, eyes, and nose.

Most of the vanadium used by industry is added to steel and other alloys. Small amounts of additives like ferrovanadium (FeV) make these metals stronger and more resistant to heat. Vanadium pentoxide (V2O5) is used to help produce sulphuric acid and maleic anhydride. It can also be added to glass for a green or blue tint. Vanadium dioxide (VO2) can be used to coat glass to block infrared radiation.

Did you know? Because of its multicoloured compound, vanadium is named after Vanadis, the Scandinavian goddess of beauty and youth.

Energy storage

In 2006, an American company joined forces with a German company to reopen a vanadium mine in Nevada. Their goal was to develop an improved vanadium redox battery. Also called flow batteries, redox batteries are a type of rechargeable battery. Electrons flow from a liquid at the negative terminal (the anode), through a membrane, and on to a second liquid at the positive terminal (the cathode).

Like other transition metals, vanadium can easily change its oxidation state. That means it can lose and gain electrons through reversible reactions. As a result, vanadium ions can be used at both the cathode and the anode of a redox battery. The positive terminal contains VO2+ and VO2+ ions and the negative terminal contains V3+ and V2+ ions. As these vanadium ions circulate through the battery, ion exchange, or flow of electric current, occurs between the two liquids. This ion exchange can be used to store electrical energy or can provide electrical power for anything from a lamp to a subway system.

In fact, New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority has signed a deal to test vanadium redox batteries. Researchers are developing a prototype that can store electricity generated overnight, when the demand is low. The energy stored in the battery could then be used in the morning, when the demand for electricity goes up. This would reduce the amount of electricity needed to be generated during the day. The city would also save money on its electricity bills because electricity generated overnight costs less than electricity generated during the day.

Vanadium-based redox batteries could also help make solar panels, like the ones installed on the roofs of many homes, more efficient. Solar panels produce the most electricity in the middle of the day, when residents are often at school or work and when the demand for electricity is low. Vanadium batteries could store this excess electricity and discharge it later in the evening when people are at home to use it.

However, it is not yet clear whether vanadium will make a major contribution to energy efficiency in the future. There may even be a vanadium shortage in the future. Since only very small amounts of vanadium are added to steel, it is not worth the effort to recover the vanadium from discarded steel. And more research is required to determine the cost and effectiveness of energy storage projects using vanadium batteries.

Did you know? Weapons made with Damascus steel in 3rd century BC contain vanadium, among other metals.

Learn more!

Websites with general information on vanadium:

Facts About Vanadium (2013)
Live Science

The Element Vanadium
Steve Gagnon, Jefferson Lab

University of Maryland Medical Center

News articles on the potential uses of vanadium batteries:

Websites with information on have vanadium redox flow batteries work:

How Vanadium Flow Batteries Work
redT Energy Storage

Vanadium Redox (VRB) Flow Batteries
Energy Storage Association

Anh Nguyen

For the past five years, I have been a lab technician/research assistant in several labs at UBC. I was lucky to have a hybrid job - half the time I'd be collecting samples and doing bench work; the other half I'd be doing bioinformatics.  What's that, you say?  In short, I look at DNA sequence data and try to find reoccurring patterns in order to answer questions like, "How often does this gene occur in our samples?", or, "Is this gene present in all or some of the species we're looking at?". Now I'm looking for something new to do with my bachelor's degree in combined computer science and biology... who knows what that will be? In the meantime, I'm working on my writing skills through volunteering with CurioCity, since writing has always been fun for me. And writing for a younger audience and making science sound cool... well, that's much easier said than done!

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