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Vanadium: The metal that may soon be powering your neighbourhood (bbc.com)
145 points by Libertatea on June 14, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

I suppose it's my turn to link to another effort in this area, liquid salt batteries: http://www.ted.com/talks/donald_sadoway_the_missing_link_to_...

They have the advantage of being much cheaper to manufacture, but I don't know how their energy density stacks up.

http://www.ambri.com/ is the company that is bringing this tech to production.

Also, Donald Sadoway is a great teacher.

I remember watching this tedtalk. Very nice. Is anything known about the progress they made since then?

I've been hearing about these types of batteries for years (they were developed at UNSW where I attended) but the technology has been unviable ever since then.

The problem, near as I can tell, is that even with the benefits, vanadium is still too expensive. It would cost ~$80,000 or more in conc. vanadium for storing 100 kwH - just enough energy to keep a house safely off the grid.

To that price you have to add the solar system to charge it, the cell stack, the conc. H2SO4 you have to dissolve the vanadium in etc.

We need to get way cheaper then that before we can get serious about this - ideally cheap enough that we can encourage everyone to have a cell stack in their house that offsets their peak loads. That would open up some real options.

How about $100,000 per a couple dozen houses?

From the article in reference to sea squirts that digest vanadium: "Having committed themselves to this life of tedium, they also digest their redundant brains" . --- There are times in life where being able to do this temporarily would certainly be a relief :)

This is the subject of a classic joke about tenure:

“The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn't need its brain anymore, so it eats it! It's rather like getting tenure.”


I think that's what boozahol is for

(Disclaimer: I know very little about either Vanadium or the alternatives I will suggest, so these are the opinions of a lay person on the subject)

Why is yet another mineral we have to mine, then presumably buy from an industry that will become another iteration of today's energy giants, the solution?

What is wrong with present methodologies of energy storage? For example using surplus power to pump water up hill, to later recuperate during peak hours? Or heating water? Things of that vein that're obviously not efficient, but trivial enough to implement for single buildings (whether a house or a sky scraper) without needing any change to infrastructure.

To be clear, what I'm against here is the creation of demand for yet another substance we'll despoil the planet some more for. Mines are festering wounds upon the planet. And I seriously doubt harvesting sea creatures will lead to anything more than the same sort of damage inflicted upon a seabed already scarred by dragnets.

Edit: From reading further, and to answer my own question, the problem is that all research in this field is geared towards the identification of materials or energy sources that can be commoditised.

> What is wrong with present methodologies of energy storage? For example using surplus power to pump water up hill, to later recuperate during peak hours?

Say you want to store 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity (most places in the United States, about $0.12 worth). That's 3.6 million joules of energy. The potential energy gained by moving an object away from the Earth is approximately m * g * h, were m is mass, g gravity, and h height. g is approximately 10, and in a home system let's say h is also approximately 10. Probably less. Then the amount of water you need to move is approximately 36,000 kilograms. At 1 kilogram per liter, that's 36,000 liters or approximately 9,000 gallons. For comparison, that's roughly the size of a moderate swimming pool.

And of course, there are many other problems: converting electricity to pump action to water movement to potential energy back to electricity is not 100% efficient. That much water is extremely heavy; there's a reason swimming pools are often built in the ground. Etc. And all that for just 1 kilowatt hour!

My urban apartment uses O(10) kilowatt hours per day, so even if only a small fraction of that must be stored, my roommate and I would require a swimming pool or three. Hard to find space in a city...this could all be done remotely, but then transmission loss cuts the efficiency further.

Not really relevant to the discussion, but O(10) doesn't mean "approximately 10".

O(f(x)) denotes a function that is bounded by a constant multiple of f(x), and really only makes sense in the context of a dependent variable x. (e.g. O(2^x) denotes an exponential-bounded relationship with x).

So O(10) in the above context effectively means your apartment uses some unknown number of kWh.

To expand on this: O(10) is the same as O(9) or O(1) and O(k). (k is a constant)

Key to understanding this: Note that if you graphed out all the above as functions, they would all be horizontal lines.

O is about the kind of function something is, specifically relating to how fast it expands.

When dealing with numbers, the notation means "order of magnitude," which is the nearest power of 10. Strictly, this places is between 5 and 50 (4 rounds down to 1, 51 rounds up to 100).

Most people use it a little more loosely in conversation. More than 1, not 100, etc.

While I've occasionally seen O(...) used to mean "approximate upper bound" or even "approximate bound" in a more general way than the math for Big-O notation would permit, I've assumed it was either error or analogy, not a specific other function. Can you give a citation for this being an established usage?

(Note that I'm certainly familiar with orders of magnitude, just not this notation for them.)

It may be informal. I seem to recall people also using ~ for this, as in

"The detector is measuring eV, but this effect is ~ meV |O(meV) so we won't see it."

I didn't know this. I'm used to just talking about "order of magnitude."

You are completely correct, of course. At best it's an abuse of notation and perhaps an abuse of idea. But hopefully a fairly readable abuse!

I don't know a better shorthand for "of approximately the same order of magnitude." There's ~, but it also has its problems...if I say "I am ~175cm tall," I am not allowing for the possibility that I am 100cm tall or 500cm tall.

Is there an established convention?

I don't know of an established convention. I've heard people just say "within an order of magnitude." This may be a readable abuse to some, but not all; when I saw O(10) I just saw a horizontal line graph in my head and thought "huh?"

And now I know :) Thanks for taking the time to make this detailed & informative reply!

So basically the point is that Vanadium presents the most efficient method of power storage we know of to date?

I don't think so. In energy storage, pumped-storage hydroelectricity(PSH) is still the undisputed king. It currently represents >99% of installed capacity, and has a quite good efficiency. As I understand, Vanadium redox battery is not more efficient than PSH. And no energy storage system is proven to scale to PSH scale.

About the only problem with PSH is need for a reservoir and hence site selection. In Europe, it is said that Norway, which has lots of good sites for PSH, alone, can support entire energy storage demand of Europe. As I understand it is more problematic in US.

To what extent could you pressurize the water to restrict the volume? I can imagine an egg timer style device with heavy pressurised immiscible liquids and some turbine in the middle that you turn over physically instead of pumping.

someone has already had the idea:


oh here's another one - might be interesting to strap two of these together:


Well, air compresses better. People are trying to store energy in compressed air. I found LightSail Energy to be interesting.


From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Properties_of_water#Compressibi...

> The low compressibility of water means that even in the deep oceans at 4 km depth, where pressures are 40 MPa, there is only a 1.8% decrease in volume.

With some simplifications, the stored energy is approximately P*deltaV/2 (when P>>1atm), where P is the pressure and deltaV is the volume change. So in 1 litter (1/4 galon) at -4Km, the energy is only 400J (.1Wh), and you need submarine grade technology to store it.

The potential energy of 1 litter (1/4 galon) of water at 40m (130 ft, a 15 story building) is also 400J (.1Wh) and is much easier to build.

the volume of a liquid hardly changes under pressure.

The biggest site in the UK (built in the 70s for the same problem from nuclear power) was built into an abandoned quarry, surely there must be plenty of those around?


Yes, but probably not ones on the top of a mountain.

We have a 1728MW pumped storage facility here in Wales.



Not so much "commoditised" in the economic sense, but "can be deployed widely".

Inefficient storage is pointless. If it ends up being cheaper to throw the surplus away and then later run a fossil fuel generator, people will do that.

Time-shifted heating has long been a thing in the UK; "Economy 7" electricity is cheaper at night, used in conjunction with oil-filled storage heaters.

"Pump water up hill" requires a suitable hill. There are not nearly as many of these as you think, and flooding them is environmental damage of its own.

There's also a difference between using a substance re-usably for energy storage, versus extracting a non-renewable resource and burning it.

Grid-scale batteries are key to getting to a situation where most energy is renewable. The other tech that might work here is the molten salt battery, but that's harder to handle and doesn't scale down well.

It seems to me that the molten salts make the most sense and seems to be the farthest along:


The case for small scale electric storage seems less obvious to me https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten_salt_battery#Vehicles but lithium ion seems to be working for now.

"Metallic vanadium is not found in nature, but vanadium compounds occur naturally in about 65 different minerals. Economically significant examples include patronite (VS4),[26] vanadinite (Pb5(VO4)3Cl), and carnotite (K2(UO2)2(VO4)2·3H2O). Much of the world's vanadium production is sourced from vanadium-bearing magnetite found in ultramafic gabbro bodies. Vanadium is mined mostly in South Africa, north-western China, and eastern Russia. In 2010 these three countries mined more than 98% of the 56,000 tonnes of produced vanadium.[27]

Vanadium is also present in bauxite and in fossil fuel deposits such as crude oil, coal, oil shale and tar sands. In crude oil, concentrations up to 1200 ppm have been reported. When such oil products are burned, the traces of vanadium may initiate corrosion in motors and boilers.[28] An estimated 110,000 tonnes of vanadium per year are released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.[29] Vanadium has also been detected spectroscopically in light from the Sun and some other stars.[30]"

"Vanadium metal is obtained via a multistep process that begins with the roasting of crushed ore with NaCl or Na2CO3 at about 850 °C to give sodium metavanadate (NaVO3). An aqueous extract of this solid is acidified to give "red cake", a polyvanadate salt, which is reduced with calcium metal. As an alternative for small-scale production, vanadium pentoxide is reduced with hydrogen or magnesium. Many other methods are also in use, in all of which vanadium is produced as a byproduct of other processes.[31] Purification of vanadium is possible by the crystal bar process developed by Anton Eduard van Arkel and Jan Hendrik de Boer in 1925. It involves the formation of the metal iodide, in this example vanadium(III) iodide, and the subsequent decomposition to yield pure metal.[32]"

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanadium#Occurrence

So not only is extracting this stuff going to involve mining, the process of extraction itself relies on extremely toxic substances, and the most economic areas to mine it are places it's less than prudent to rely upon economically (China, Russia, South Africa)

Neither salt nor sodium carbonate is particularly toxic. The sodium carbonate is pretty reactive, as are hydrogen, magnesium and calcium. The various stages of vanadium compounds are likely a bigger concern than the various reaction agents.

The big reason pumped storage isn't more prevalent is that it isn't all that trivial to make it economical (you need a big reservoir to have much capacity). You also end up needing a lot of concrete, which also comes from mines (and requires a bunch of energy to produce).

The better tradeoff is probably to examine and carefully control mining practices (as opposed to sort of endorsing the status quo material consumption).

The problem with mining is rock rarely contains only one metal. The ore is crushed, the desired metal is extracted, and slag filled with heavy metal is deposited on the ground, where rain leaches poisonous metals into the water supply.

>using surplus power to pump water up hill, to later recuperate during peak hours

Consider e.g.


>Or heating water?

This is thermodynamically ridiculous. There's huge energy losses involved, cf Carnot efficiency of such a system.

>From reading further, and to answer my own question, the problem is that all research in this field is geared towards the identification of materials or energy sources that can be commoditized.

Oh please. It's a difficult problem. If there was an easy way to solve it cheaply without consequences it would have been done already. There are problems with dams and hot water and "layman" solutions like those. There are also problems with compressed air, batteries, and molten salts, not to mention loopy stuff like superconductors and nanosprings.

Because no thermodynamic cycle is 100% efficient.

Interesting. Vanadium is relatively abundant too; Wikipedia places it on 20th place, ahead of more known and very widely used elements like chromium, nickel and zinc, copper and tin (on the 49th place!).

This might be viable for mass-production.

Knight describes the color changes as the vanadium is reduced - yellow -> green -> blue -> violet as the vanadium receives electrons from the zinc. But then later, he describes the battery. "In one tank, the vanadium releases electrons, turning from yellow to blue." At least one of these statements are incorrect.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanadium#Compounds

The latter statement is incorrect, but it's an easy to make mistake. What he probably meant was that "in one tank, the vanadium releases electrons, turning from blue to yellow while in the other tank, vanadium accepts electrons, turning from yellow to blue."

>> "One of these statements are incorrect"

One _or more_ are incorrect :)

"At least one of these statements are incorrect."

The article states that peak demand is the evening... I would have thought peak demand would have been during the day when large factories are operating at peak output.

Large industrial users don't vary their demand much, and actually change when they use it to fit the demand curves (i.e. Aluminium smelters).

Peak in the UK is early evening, when people are still working late & also people returning home (electric trains), heating houses, dinner, doing laundry etc.


This is an amazingly hands-on dashboard. Together with handy tips on why and when peaks and troughs occur. For example I had no idea UK wind potential (potential) capacity was so close to nuclear.

Yep, and look at the graphs. Look at the yearly graph at the bottom, nuclear output averages 6.0 - 7.0GW, wind output averages about 2.0 - 2.5GW over a 12 month period, for about the same nameplate capacity (installed nameplate capacity: Wind 8GW; Nuclear 12GW - close enough to support the following argument).

This means we have to overbuild wind capacity by a factor of about 3 to 4 in order to match nuclear / coal / gas.

Now have a think about how much steel and concrete are required to build 1GW of wind base load capacity compared to 1GW base load nuclear. You need to build, say, 3x 640MW reactors to achieve 1GW continuous output, so 1 reactor can be offline for refuelling or maintenance at any one time, while the other two are run at 80% capacity. To achieve 1GW of base load wind you need to build 3 to 4GW nameplate capacity, and even then the wind doesn't blow all the time, so you need widely dispersed wind, plus storage because sometimes the wind doesn't blow anywhere in the UK for days on end - the currently weekly graph shows this: wind has been producing approximately 0GW output for most of the last week. Also, wind needs long new transmission lines, (large) nuclear can be a drop in replacement for existing coal plants as they are retired, or built next / close to existing transmission lines.

There are plenty of resources on the web that will help you discover the materials inputs for different generating technologies, see bravenewlcimate.com particularly [1] for example.

Regardless of what technology we choose moving forward, to achieve zero emissions by 2050 would require a war-like rollout, starting now. But wind and solar are at least a couple of magnitudes of order more materials-intensive than nuclear / coal / gas for the same base load output. And there probably aren't that many sites suitable for wind, especially ones that don't require 1000km new transmission lines.

I'm not against renewables per se, I'm just for math. The idea of 'renewable resources' appeals to me. But until the math magically changes, I don't see how wind and solar (with or without storage) is a good idea, either environmentally from the materials-input perspective, or economically from the end-users perspective. What we need to push us forward technologically is large amounts of cheap / free zero emissions -when generating- electricity.

Another strike against wind and solar is this: if either was so attractive economically then large investment funds would have flooded the market with the technology. But it isn't, which speaks directly about the ROI (Return on Investment), which is derived from materials input and running cost per dollar return. The only way it makes sense economically to build wind and solar is if the price of electricity goes up, which is ideal if you want people to freeze to death or die of heat stroke, or make your electric car uneconomical to run.

I think that UK National Grid Status webpage is the best example of wind not working as a solution to electricity supply, unless you define the problem as "how to make expensive unreliable electricity" a la Germany and Denmark [2], who have the highest wind electricity generation in Europe and the most expensive electricity in Europe [3].

I may have waffled on more than I originally intended.

1. http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/10/18/tcase4/

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_the_European_Unio...

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_pricing

Edit: speeling nd grama

The UK is a bad place for solar power. Spain or Egypt would have much higher, and more reliable, output, that could be more easily predicted and buffered. I have heard figures like 4x between spain and the UK.

What about tidal power? That should work well in the UK.

available tidal energy is relatively low, on the order of handful kWh per day per UK citizen. extracting all available tidal energy would require extraordinary investment. in effect, it's unrealistic to expect more than 1-2 kWh per day per person. solar and wind are much better bets, though neither is on par with coal.

I recommend reading this book: www.withouthotair.com/ it contains nice estimates of energy used by UK people on the one hand, and energy available from various sustainable sources.

The drop in demand over Christmas and weekends is interesting. Lots of inefficient offices are shut I guess.

The power demand of the UK is largely driven by lighting, as heating is provided largely by gas and oil. This leads to a fairly low base load, leading to an office load throughout the day and a peak in the evening as everyone is at home.

Historic UK demand with halfhourly precision can be downloaded from the National Grid's website: http://www2.nationalgrid.com/uk/Industry-information/Electri...

I suppose there are no large factories on Hawaii

> ... peak demand for electricity, which generally comes in the late afternoon and evening, when everyone travels home, turns on the lights, heating or air conditioning, boils the kettle, bungs dinner in the microwave, and so on

Related video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/britainfromabove/stories/people/teatime...

While researching this I found a tremendous resource that goes in to pretty good depth of all the alternatives for grid level storage:


Only good thing is that it can take a lot of charge cycles, otherwise it's worse on all aspects, than even traditional lead-acid batteries.

No, it's a reflow battery - meaning you can make the capacity arbitrarily large (literally you have a tank of one redox, a tank of another). Hopefully this will make it much cheaper for large capacities.

Yes, it's heavy for the capacity, but this does not matter for fixed installations.

Number of charge cycles & recycle-ability makes an enormous difference to the balance of systems cost for a battery.

I wonder how stable the "charged" state solution is?

Could you charge it up in one location, and truck/ship/pump it somewhere else for consumption? Imagine refitting crude oil supertankers to handle the acidity and ship solar power from some remote coastal desert to more useful places. Other than the headmelting price of Va, it could conceivably be cheaper than building transmission lines & their associated resistance losses.

(I'm probably missing some key fact of why this wouldn't work. But it's a nice idea)

That would be so much less efficient than transporting hydrocarbon fuels as to be pointless.

You Will still lose some 20 + 20% due to charge and discharge inefficiencies. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanadium_redox_battery

Do Brits really say "bungs dinner in the microwave" ?

Antipodeans, too. Without the 's' - the 's' is just an artifact of how the sentence in the article reads. 'bung' just means 'casually put somewhere'. "Where do you want this box?" => "Just bung it on the table"

Yes. The S depends on the conjugation - I bung ... He/she bungs ... They bung ...

I think "bungs" is interchangeable, but yes.

'bung' equates to 'chuck'.

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