Special Report 113

Author(s) Date 2023-01-31

The advancement in the production of green and low carbon energy, combined with the intermittency of solar and wind energy production, puts additional pressure on the commercial availability of energy from such resources. Large-scale batteries for energy storage are already a part of the answer to such challenges. Alberta is a large-scale hydrocarbon producer exporting over ~477 700 cubic metres per day of mostly heavy oil, but it is less known that value-added opportunities exist for battery-grade metals. While most attention is currently dedicated to lithium due to high demand for electric cars, laptops, cellular phones, and other types of mobile energy storage, it is less known that Alberta is blessed with significant amounts of vanadium (V) directly related to bitumen production. This monograph (review) will try to shed light on the distribution of vanadium, its life cycle through, mostly, bitumen production and processing, and quantitative future opportunities. Some information on nickel (Ni) potential is also presented.

Initial calculations show that Alberta has a potential to be a world player in vanadium production. The main potential source of vanadium is bitumen that contains 210–240 ppm V and ~80 ppm of Ni. During 2017, oil sands mines extracted more than 16 000 tonnes (t) of V embedded in bitumen, with almost 2/3 precipitated into coke during upgrading. Most of the unprecipitated V is sequestered at the Scotford upgrader and refinery, with the North West Upgrader becoming a potentially significant additional V source in the near future. These two facilities handle enough elemental vanadium (~3735 t) to potentially produce about ~1200 megawatt hours/year (MWh/year) of electricity storage in the form of vanadium redox batteries (VRBs). Partial upgrading of bitumen can potentially recover at least half of the V and Ni entrained in oil sands bitumen, which could place Alberta among the world leaders in V production. The total V in Alberta bitumen is about 34–39 kilotonnes/year (kt/y), based on 2017 bitumen production.

The largest available resource of V and Ni is existing petcoke stockpiles that contain about 126 000 t of V. However, due to differing storage practices, not all of these metals are available even if the petcoke would be accessible for some kind of recovery process (i.e., leaching). Annual petcoke production exceeded 10.1 megatonnes (Mt) during 2017 containing about 10 800 t of V. With a slight increase due to higher production at the CNRL Horizon mine, and only 50% extraction efficiency, petcoke has the potential to provide >5500 t of vanadium or about 1800 MWh/year of storage capacity in the form of VRBs. Vanadium from petcoke, froth treatment tailings (FTT) and partial upgrading is at least 90% recoverable if appropriate processes are applied such as roasting or gasification of FTT. Such a high recovery factor significantly enhances economic potential.
So far, a large portion of V and Ni is exported to the United States, either as spent catalyst mixed with metallic sludge, or embedded within unrefined bitumen. Most of the exported bitumen is diluted (dilbit) and may contain embedded vanadium in the amount of >17000 t/y and roughly 6000 t/y of nickel. The total annual content of V and Ni within both mined and in-situ bitumen is estimated at 35 000 t of V, and 11 000–13,000 t of Ni. With V from other resources such as light and heavy oil, vanadium content within oils is estimated at about 40,000 t/y.

Potential for V also exist in near surface ironstone deposits in NW Alberta, while potential for V, Ni, and others metals exists in shallow, polymetallic black shale in NE Alberta. There is no indication of when, if at all, either of these two deposits will be mined. However, the potential in these areas is worth noting.
Vanadium from two upgraders/refineries near Edmonton and two documented mineral exploration projects represent a value-added opportunity for an energy storage/battery industry in Alberta with an estimated value in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, if manufactured into value-added forms such as vanadium redox batteries (VRBs).

Burkus, Z., Lopez, G.P., Rokosh, C.D. and White, G.V. (2023): Critical metals in Alberta: preliminary evaluation of vanadium and nickel potential in Alberta bitumen and bedrock; Alberta Energy Regulator / Alberta Geological Survey, AER/AGS Special Report 113, 29 p.