Vanadium: the new kid on the East London renewables block

Bushveld Energy's Belco plant in East London, which is being commissioned in the first half of 2023, will be the largest vanadium battery electrolyte facility outside of China.
Bushveld Energy's Belco plant in East London, which is being commissioned in the first half of 2023, will be the largest vanadium battery electrolyte facility outside of China.

A new tenant in East London's IDZ has a role to play in the wave of renewable energy that is engulfing the world.

The Bushveld Electrolyte Company, or Belco, forms a crucial link in the manufacture of long-life batteries, so that energy from renewable sources like sun and wind can be stored. 

The company is jointly owned by Bushveld Energy and the Industrial Development Corporation.

Bushveld Energy CEO Mikhail Nikomarov, who chairs the SA Energy Storage Association, told Dispatch sister publication Business Day that  at the moment it is the suburban residential demand dominating the solar market.

But, now that the 100MW ceiling has been removed from licensing requirements for private generation projects, the commercial and industrial demand for batteries in SA is about to take off. 

Because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind blow, until humanity cracked the energy storage conundrum, renewables were going to stay at cottage industry level.

Enter vanadium, a  byproduct in mining. As the alloy that gives steel its strength and bounce, vanadium is already making cars, planes, bridges and towers lighter yet tougher all the time. 

But the trace mineral has another use: it is the key element in vanadium electrolyte, a liquid at the heart of a simple yet revolutionary mechanism for storing energy cheaply and safely in massive quantities — or tiny ones, or whatever you like. This makes the technology a catalyst for renewables to take off and replace fossil fuels.

The liquid, the most expensive component in the batteries, will be manufactured at Belco, SA’s first vanadium electrolyte factory. 

Vanadium will be brought from Bushveld Mineral’s Vametco mine and plant in Brits, North West Province, to East London, 1,100km away.

Belco is expected to produce about a million litres of vanadium electrolyte before the end of this year, Nikomarov said.

However, although the plant — which has cost close to R100m and could run to another R160m by the end of 2024 — was rumoured to be ready to open last month, the doors are still shut, and the company is mum on the launch date.

"We need to align the timing of the interview with the opening of the plant," said Bushveld brand and communications head Kesebone Maema.

"The date of completion of the plant is not yet confirmed."

Nikomarov said the plan was to increase output from a million to at least 8-million litres a year over the next four years, which will make it the largest such facility outside China.

In fact, almost all the vanadium in the world comes from only three countries: China, Russia and SA.   

This puts SA — and now East London — in a key position in one of the world's key growth industries.

The Belco plant will employ about 55 people. Once made, the liquid will be shipped or trucked elsewhere to where the batteries -- known as vanadium redox flow batteries -- are made. 

Flow batteries last ten times longer than lithium batteries, can charge and discharge at same time, and can release huge amounts of electricity instantly. They can power anything from a single home to a national power grid -- and in the case of a grid, they stabilise the energy flow from wind turbines and solar panels, according to the Critical Raw Materials Alliance.

Vanadium flow batteries are non-flammable and non-explosive. They can level output by holding or distributing power when called for, and they can be set up wherever renewables thrive.Another great feature: the capacity of a battery is easily expanded by simply adding more solution.

A recent World Bank report suggested that the development of a battery market and value chain in SA could create an industry capable of generating up to $2bn in revenue a year by 2032 and providing tens of thousands of jobs.

But Nikomarov thinks the report is not ambitious enough.

“[It] is not wrong, but many of the assumptions in the report are based on the government's Integrated Resources Plan of 2019, which is due to be updated and already out of date in terms of the amount of battery storage that SA will need to install.”

Bushveld Energy has already started exploring, with the IDC, the idea of establishing a vanadium battery value chain in SA.



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