Rare earth rising
An obscure mineral with a long and colorful mining history in Colorado may be reemerging as an element critical to the widespread use of solar and wind power.
At the same time, it introduces a bit of a quandary for environmentalists seeking a clean and renewable energy future.
The substance is vanadium, long used as a metal alloy that improves the strength and elasticity of steel. Though Colorado once produced much of the world's vanadium, U.S. markets now import almost all of it from Africa.
For the past 20 years, scientists have been researching its use in new-age batteries. But until recently, they've been plagued by the vanadium redox battery's limited storage capacity and inability to operate effectively in any temperature extremes.
Along with other obstacles, the added expense of maintaining expensive cooling systems has rendered the battery infeasible outside the research lab. But new government-funded research surmounts some of those obstacles, and could trigger a game-changing renewable energy breakthrough.
Vanadium exists side by side with uranium, in the same controversial ore that has spawned so many blessings and curses around the world for the past 70 years, first in atomic bombs and next in nuclear energy reactors. You can't mine one without the other.
"That certainly would be ironic," said Hilary White, executive director of the Telluride-based Sheep Mountain Alliance.
Sheep Mountain has three lawsuits pending against Energy Fuels Inc., a Canadian company with offices in Lakewood that has received state approval to open the Pinon Ridge Uranium Mill in Montrose County.
On its website, Energy Fuels refers to itself as "an advanced uranium and vanadium development company."
The company has spent $11 million in the past two years developing its plan to process up to 500 tons of ore per day, producing 850,000 pounds of uranium oxide pellets, each one generating the same amount of electricity as 100 tons of coal.
If built, the projected $150 million Pinon Ridge plant would be the first such U.S. facility constructed since 1980, when the White Mesa Uranium Mill in Blanding, Utah, opened. White Mesa is currently the only active uranium mill in the country.
"Vanadium represents a significant part of what we will produce," said Curtis Moore, director of communications and legal affairs for Energy Fuels. "We expect vanadium to represent about 25 percent of our total revenue. "
At current commodity spot prices, uranium brings about $68 per pound, while vanadium brings $7 per pound.
The ore that will be processed at Pinon Ridge contains four to five times more vanadium than uranium, Moore said. "At this point we plan to sell it for its use as a steel alloy (its main use since the early 1900s). At the same time, we remain very interested in vanadium-lithium batteries and the vanadium redox battery, which may at some point provide large-scale, communitywide electrical storage."
"I don't know enough about the processing of vanadium to say much about it," White said. "This is the first time it's come up. I do know that Energy Fuels' main goal is to get uranium out of the ore and use the vanadium as a side market."
For 20 years, vanadium redox batteries have been regarded as a promising large-scale energy storage device, hampered by its high cost and inability to work well in a wide range of temperatures.
Public officials in Telluride, for instance, toyed with the idea 10 years ago of using utility-scale vanadium redox batteries as a way to get the town's electric power "renewable and totally off the grid," White recalled.
The project was abandoned as "not economically feasible," she said.
But earlier this year, researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., published research on their experiments that increased the batteries' energy storage capacity by 70 percent and expanded the temperature range in which they operate.
In a paper published by the journal Advanced Energy Materials, lead author and PNNL chemist Liyu Li wrote, "Our small adjustments greatly improve the vanadium redox battery. And with just a little more work, the battery could potentially increase the use of wind, solar and other renewable power sources across the electric grid."
Perhaps the biggest criticism of solar and wind energies is that its power is unreliable because it is intermittent. A traditional power plant generates electricity in a reliable, consistent stream by controlling how much natural gas or coal is burned. With wind and solar, no reliable storage exists that can store the energy for use at times when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing.
The new research into vanadium redox batteries may change the equation. By tinkering with the electrolyte chemistry in the batteries, researchers were successful in getting them to work in both warmer and colder temperatures, between 23 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit. That breakthrough eliminates much of the need for costly cooling systems. The refurbished batteries also were able to maintain more than 85 percent of their efficiency for more than 20 days - more than enough time between bursts of sunshine and gusts of wind.
The new-energy financial news website www.EnergyBoom.com wrote about the research in March, with the headline "Is Vanadium ‘the Next Big Thing' for Renewable Energy Storage?"
"Proponents of the metal vanadium believe it will improve the economics of wind and solar power enough to make them cost-competitive with fossil fuels," the trade publication reported. "Batteries using vanadium have the right combination of scalability, power and discharge/recharge characteristics to store wind and solar power until it can used during peak demands when prices are highest."
Vanadium also is being tested on a smaller scale for use in electric cars. President Obama pledged to put 1 million plug-in hybrid electric cars on the road by 2015, and has pushed a $2.4 billion grant program to develop next-generation batteries. Vanadium-lithium batteries have scored important successes in the lab, but more research is needed.
"We will not have electric cars without lithium and vanadium for batteries," said Joe Martin, chairman of Cambridge House International, a Canadian company that conducts annual conferences for resource investors.
Martin also cited vanadium's importance "in better and stronger metal alloys, as well as in larger next-generation batteries. Maximizing the existing electrical grid demands storage and more generating capacity, so critical materials include uranium (in reactors), lithium and vanadium (for storage)."
The ore containing uranium and vanadium was first found in 1881 in western Montrose County. The discovery led to more than 100 years of boom and bust in the highly productive Uravan Mining District, named for - you guessed it - uranium and vanadium.
But the ore's initial commercial use was for its small concentrations of radium, found in trace amounts as small as a seventh of a gram per ton.
"Just after the turn of the century, the use of radium in medical applications attracted considerable attention," writes Telluride historian Paul O'Rourke.
In Paris, Madame Marie Curie and her husband Pierre conducted various experiments on radioactivity from uranium ore, some of which came from Colorado. Radium is a byproduct of the radioactive decay of uranium. In the early 1900s, it was thought to be a cure for cancer and other ailments. Hot Springs such as the Indian Springs Hot Springs in Idaho Springs advertised themselves as radium springs.
"Revolutionary ‘Curie Therapy,' together with traditional surgery was the only means then available for treating deep-seated cancers," wrote O'Rourke, a former Bureau of Land Management historian. "By far the most precious substance in the world at the time - a gram retailed for $180,000 - demand for radium skyrocketed as news spread about the element's curative powers."
From 1913 to 1926, a Colorado company, Standard Chemical, put 200 grams of radium on the open market, half going to hospitals for cancer treatment. In 1924, significant deposits were discovered in the Belgian Congo, and the Colorado market dried up. Another reason for the domestic market's demise was the costly process of separating small amounts of radium from large amounts of vanadium that was separated and discarded. Also, the notion that radium was helpful in the treatment of cancer was largely discredited.
But as O'Rourke writes, "As is often the irony in the mining industry, a mineral once the outcast soon becomes the darling."
In 1905 the first U.S. vanadium mill was built along San Miguel River, capitalizing on its growing use as a steel alloy. The mill was soon connected to the Rio Grande Southern railroad. In 1913, the nearby town of Newmire was renamed Vanadium and its population tripled to 350. A few years later, the mill was dismantled and most residents left as it was unable to compete with larger vanadium operations near Rifle.
As the world gradually moved toward World War I, vanadium was increasingly used to harden the steel in cannons and other weaponry.
"Vanadium steel was very impact-resistant and made great armor plating," said Jim Burnell, a senior minerals geologist with Colorado Geological Survey. "It became very valuable during the war, setting off another boom. "
Through the 1930s, the old radium mines were reopened for vanadium. In 1936, the settlement that grew up around one mine was named Uravan. By the early 1940s, Colorado was producing nearly 50 percent of the world's vanadium.
At the same time, the U.S. government was quietly involving itself in the Uravan mines and mill. The U.S. Geological Survey sent teams to examine vanadium tailings for their uranium content as America secretly worked on the atomic bomb.
The project was kept secret even from workers and engineers who oversaw the mines. The mill was retrofitted for uranium extraction, and small containers of ore were surreptitiously shipped from Uravan to Grand Junction. From there, it went to atomic scientists in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Hanford, Wash., and Los Alamos, N.M. It was used - along with uranium from Canada and the Congo - to produce the warheads that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
By 1950, Uravan - once the hub of radium and then vanadium mining - was again propelled into industrial prominence as a source of uranium.
From then until now, the area's fortunes rose and fell with those of nuclear power. Declining demand and increased foreign supply led to the closing of the mill and the abandonment of the town in 1984. Then the global spread of nuclear power led to a rise in uranium prices, prompting the reopening in 2004 of four Uravan mines, which also sold the vanadium from the ore. The mines were closed in 2005.
Today, the world's 435 nuclear reactors need 180 million pounds of uranium a year. But worldwide mine production yields only 110 million pounds, with the remainder reclaimed from existing stockpiles of ore and even retired nuclear weapons. For instance, the 18-year-old Megatons to Megawatts program recycles bomb-grade uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads into enriched uranium used to produce fuel for American nuclear power plants. But the program expires in 2013.
Since vanadium and uranium originate from the same ore, their twin fates remain inseparable. Vanadium will not be mined in Colorado anytime soon unless uranium is.
In March, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a radioactive materials license to Energy Fuels, allowing the company to proceed with its Pinon Ridge mill.
The Sheep Mountain Alliance promptly sued the state, claiming Colorado regulators failed to follow federal and state law in permitting the mill. State regulators and Energy Fuels moved to have the suit dismissed, but a Denver District judge rejected their arguments in May, clearing the way for Sheep Mountain's legal challenge to proceed.
Sheep Mountain, among other things, asserts that many tons of uranium ore waste will be dumped without proper emissions limits, releasing radioactive radon from the tailing piles. Radon is a radioactive gas that increases the risk of cancer when inhaled. It can impact the health of communities beyond a 50-mile radius, Sheep Mountain says.
"Their opposition has everything to do with an opposition to nuclear power, which they regard as a Pandora's Box," said Brian Wilson, Montrose County public works director. "They regard radiation as a kind of boogeyman thing. We need to mature past those kinds of things as a nation if we are going to have energy independence.
"By importing all our uranium, we're simply pushing the problem into the Third World, where there is little regulation of the mining," he added. "We'd rather go kill people in some foreign country. Here, we have regulatory oversight where we can do it well and lead the world."
Cognitive dissonance is defined as an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.
It's the feeling shared by West Slope environmentalists who oppose the Pinon Ridge mill, said Energy Fuels' Moore. "Nuclear power in general puts ‘enviros' between a rock and a hard place. Uranium's use in nuclear energy is the best way to produce large-scale electricity that doesn't have carbon emissions. Even a lot of environmentalists are saying that if we're worried about carbon we have to increase our use of nuclear power."
Says White, of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, "Unfortunately, at current levels of energy use, no, I don't see a way around an increase in nuclear energy. And yes, the technology has improved, but there remain ongoing environmental concerns. And even if they were doing it safely, what would we be sacrificing to do that?"
The region's health and long-term economic vitality could be severely damaged from dangerous radon emissions from the mill, she said. "We cannot afford the dangers of uranium milling and mining of the past to be repeated again on the Western Slope. Some of us look into the future. We don't want to leave a legacy for the next generation that is toxic or uninhabitable."
Said Burnell, of the Colorado Geological Survey: "Even in alternative energy technologies, there are many natural resource demands. A recognition of those requirements will create conflict in some individuals. They've got to resolve that themselves."
Wilson, who worked as an engineer cleaning up uranium tailings in the Grand Junction area in the 1980s, said, "Until man is perfect, there will be unintended consequences. That's mankind's progress."