Virtual Wall Street, A. Jonathan Buhalis
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by Jonathan Buhalis


The discovery of vanadium is not as elegant as the histories of some elements. In 1801, a Mexican professor of mineralogy, Andrés Manuel del Rio, deduced the existence of a new metal in a mineral he called "brown lead". The mineral formed salts of a variety of colors as chromium does, so the mineralogist first named his new element panchromium, then later erythronium (meaning "red").

Unfortunately for del Rio, a French chemist asserted that he had only found an impure sample of chromium. This was incorrect, but del Rio accepted the correction.

Jumping ahead a few decades, Swedish chemistry student Nils Gabriel Sefström in 1831 detected a new element while examining an unusually soft iron ore. German chemist Friedrich Wöhler, himself the discoverer of several elements, determined that Sefström's substance was the same as del Rio's earlier discovery.

The new metal, isolated in 1867, was named vanadium after Vanadis, a title of the Norse goddess Freya.

Mining and Production

Vanadium is a soft silvery metal that is almost never prepared in its pure form.

The majority of marketable vanadium mining occurs in Russia and South Africa, which was a problem in the 1980s for Western civilization when neither country was an acceptable trading partner. Mining in China is also extensive, but for internal use. World production in 2017 was 80,000 tonnes. Vanadium is found in a wide variety of minerals, but the commercial choice is vanadium-bearing magnetite that can be smelted directly into ferrovanadium, used in making steel.

Properties and Uses

The major use of vanadium (80%) is as an alloy. Vanadium increases the tensile strength of steel. Henry Ford was one of the first to use vanadium steel. He incorporated the alloy in his Model T for "twice the strength at half the weight".

Ford Model T

Because it resists corrosion, vanadium can also be added to titanium or other metals destined for use in highly reactive environments (rocket engines) or where no amount of corrosion is acceptable (surgical instruments).

Vanadium pentoxide is the catalyst used in manufacturing sulfuric acid.
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Content by Jonathan Buhalis