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Catalyst for clean energy: American Vanadium's Gibellini Project

American Vanadium builds for a new green energy future

by Graham Chandler on July 19, 2012expertise

It will be almost like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Aiming to be the greenest mine in America, American Vanadium Corp. is evaluating the use of integrated solar and wind electric power backed by a vanadium flow battery (VFB) to run its entire operation with power to spare. And it is vanadium pentoxide that the company’s Gibellini Project in central Nevada will be producing—a critical ingredient in the very VFBs touted to allow renewables to make significant inroads to powering the nation’s electrical grids.

It promises to be the only North American vanadium mine coming online and actively looking to vertically integrate with clean energy battery manufacturing. Not only is the site’s unique geology expected to result in the production of high purity vanadium, but the mine is “being designed to be powered with wind and solar energy along with a vanadium flow battery to demonstrate the viability of microgrids using vanadium energy storage technologies in remote and integrated locations,” says Bill Radvak, president and CEO of American Vanadium Corp.

It’s no secret that the major renewable energy sources, wind and solar, produce electricity only when the wind blows or the sun shines. To make them efficient enough to be a reliable source, some of their power must be stored for release into the grid between high power generation episodes. VFBs are well-suited to providing the three main demands of this large-scale electrical storage: large enough to pull a power supply through low patches; ability to handle repeated charges and discharges over long periods; and ability to release large amounts of electricity rapidly.

Alternatively called Vanadium Redox Batteries or VRBs, they consist of a power cell assembly of two vanadium-based electrolytes separated by a proton exchange membrane. It’s the unique molecular properties of vanadium that enable the process; if necessary, recharging can be accomplished by changing the electrolyte. A related emerging battery technology calling for vanadium is its use in rechargeable lithium batteries for electric vehicles (EVs)—lithium-vanadium batteries are a leading solution for the next generation of EV batteries.

American Vanadium Corp. is poised to supply the element to a market that’s expected to quickly expand as these needs make their inroads into a new and greener future. At present over 90% of the world’s annual 62,000-tonne vanadium production is used to strengthen steel. Vanadium is also critical for special titanium alloys used in jet engines, missiles, armored vehicles and pollution control catalysts amongst others. But the emerging attraction of VFBs for grid scale storage and rechargeable EV batteries could rapidly gain on these as the US pushes to meet presidential renewable energy targets.

Currently, the initial source of about 80% of global vanadium is Venezuela, Russia, South Africa and China; there’s virtually no reliable US domestic supply of high purity vanadium.The American Vanadium-operated Gibellini Project in Eureka, Nevada, aims to rectify this.

With an estimated annual output of over 5,000 metric tonnes, the Gibellini Project could supply in excess of 25% of America’s vanadium needs.

The mine had been sitting dormant for a number of years when American Vanadium optioned it in 2005. It had been around for about 70 years, but the metallurgical process earlier owners had proposed proved too expensive. Then starting in 2000, price stabilization due to China and other BRICs using more vanadium raised the world price.

American Vanadium started with an AMEC scoping study in 2008. Based on the study, trenching bulk samples were collected, RC holes were drilled and XRF surveying done to develop a new base map. A follow-up feasibility study completed by AMEC in September 2011 now guides project development in the permitting phase.

The Gibellini Project is unique in the vanadium and mining worlds. “The deposit is at surface with a remarkably low strip ratio of 0.2 and the host rock is heavily fractured with a very clean shale,” explains Radvak. “Our deposit has been heavily oxidized, which means the heavy metals customary to many deposits that result in ongoing issues such as acid mine drainage are not present in any significant concentration.” As they plan to use a heap leach operation there will be no tailing pond and the project will use a fraction of the power and water of a typical mine he says.

Radvak says vanadium heap leaching will enable production of two different vanadium pentoxides—one for the steel industry and one in sulfuric acid solution ready for VFB electrolyte. The latter can be pulled directly from the heap leaching process. It will be a rare convenience: “At any given point, we can go to 100% electrolyte production or 100% vanadium pentoxide production,” says Radvak.

The mine’s unique green blend of wind and solar energy power backed with a VFB will be a first, and promises to set a precedent in becoming the greenest mine in America. It could demonstrate the viability of remote microgrids using vanadium energy storage technologies, which would have far-reaching positive environmental impacts. “Our plan is to ultimately reduce permitting concerns in air quality issues, fuel storage and transportation, electrical line, substation and grid upgrades etc,” explains Radvak. And another green bonus: vanadium works so well as a steel strengthener that it reduces the amount of steel required in construction by up to 30%, meaning 30% less iron ore is needed, power consumption goes down, and the pollution related to smelting steel is decreased, he adds.

The operation has potential to grow into the future. American Vanadium has a land package of approximately 4,250 acres surrounding the Gibellini Project where they currently survey for look-alike deposits. Included in the company’s NI 43-101 is 7.7 million tons of ore containing 42 million pounds of vanadium pentoxide.

But currently the focus is putting in place the joint ventures and associated relationships to build the grid scale battery manufacturing business in North America says Radvak. Moreover, “the Gibellini is the seed for a new industry in utility scale, remote and integrated renewable power systems; and cultivating that seed is both a challenge and a major opportunity,” he says.