Vital vanadium’s very short, so niobium’s needed instead

The specialty metal vanadium has attracted attention in commodity and investment markets over the past year as strong demand widens the supply gap. Prices for its iron alloy, ferrovanadium (FeV), have increased 540% since early 2017.

FeV is a hardening, strengthening and anti-corrosive additive for steels. Minor (typically less than 0.1% weight) additions of FeV enable the construction of robust, safe structures with less steel and therefore lower costs. This application accounts for around 90% of vanadium demand. Other applications of vanadium include chemical catalysts, aerospace alloys and batteries.

Vanadium supply depends mostly on its extraction from steel slags, with only 18% coming from few primary ores. 77% of vanadium supply (raw material) is controlled by China, Russia and South Africa.

Vanadium producers can’t meet growing demand

China has dominated the vanadium market, producing 55% of global supply, extracted mostly from titano-magnetite blast-furnace slags from steel production, but also from stone coal (anthracite). However, the Chinese government’s new, tougher limits on waste streams and environmental pollution are reducing vanadium production from these sources.

Vanitec estimates that last year, global vanadium demand (88,600 tonnes) exceeded production by 10%. Vanadium demand is forecast to increase by 50% to 130,000 tpa by 2025.

One driver for increasing demand is China’s introduction of higher strength standards for rebar (steel bars or mesh used to reinforce concrete) to enhance resistance to earthquakes. If all Chinese rebar production moves to the new standards, vanadium demand for this purpose will increase to 42,000t.

Other applications for vanadium promise to stimulate further demand, including redox flow batteries that use vanadium electrolytes and enable wider use of renewable power generation from wind and solar energy.

Clearly, new vanadium sources and/or an alternative are urgently needed.

Niobium to the rescue

Niobium – vanadium’s downstairs-neighbour on the periodic table – has similar valuable properties. Niobium can’t completely replace vanadium but is an important alternative. Historically, vanadium prices have lagged niobium prices, but are now 300% higher – a strong economic incentive for substitution.

Spot ferroniobium (FeNb) prices have increased by almost 50% since early 2017 and could increase further as steel companies substitute it for FeV. Specific consumption of niobium in China is low, so prospects for greater demand and further price gains are good.

In addition, niobium is critical for advanced alloys used in aerospace. For example, it is the main (89%) constituent in the C-103 alloy employed in re-usable rocket nozzles by Space X and NASA.

But niobium suppliers are few and far between: world-leader CBMM in Brazil produces 85% of global supply and IAMGOLD in Canada follows, producing around 9%. No new mines have been developed for over 40 years. To fill the vanadium supply gap, this situation needs to change, fast.

In 2010, WikiLeaks released a US government list of key foreign resources vital to US interests, on which niobium appeared multiple times. The strategic importance of niobium is witnessed by the following investments by countries and companies in recent years:

  • In March 2011, a Japanese investor group (JFE Steel, Nippon Steel, Sojitz and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation) and a Korean investor group (POSCO and the National Pension Service) jointly purchased 15% of CBMM for US$1.95billion
  • In August 2011, in an apparently identical deal, a Chinese group (Baoshan Iron and Steel, CITIC Group, Anshan Iron and Steel Group, Shougang and Taiyuan Iron and Steel Group) purchased 15% of CBMM for US$1.95billion
  • In October 2016, China Molybdenum purchased Anglo America’s niobium and phospahet businesses in Brazil for US$1.7billion.

Nb – chemical symbol for niobium / abbreviation for Latin nota bene: ‘note well’

Take note: Australia has a rare opportunity to secure a strategic alternative to vanadium and to existing niobium supply, for 80+ years: Alkane Resources’ world-class Dubbo Project plans to produce around 3,000 tpa of FeNb. With a sustainable supply chain, Alkane Resources offers customers transparency, reliability, product value and shorter lead times.

To progress the Dubbo Project to construction, Alkane Resources seeks a blend of financing from export credit agencies, strategic partners and equity and debt markets. Information for investors is available here