The Metal That Inspired Henry Ford
In 1905, Henry Ford came across a remarkable metal that helped him to single-handedly revolutionize the budding American car industry.
After a car race in Florida, Ford examined the wreckage of a French racecar. He realized that many of the French car's parts were made of a peculiar metal.
It was much lighter, and stronger, than the metal being used to build American cars. So Ford – seeing the opportunity to drastically cut material costs in his automobiles – rushed a specimen back to his laboratory. And it didn't take long for Ford to learn that the French alloy steel contained one truly unique element: Vanadium.
Thrilled with the potential for using this low-weight, high-strength steel in his products, Ford rushed to finance and set up his own steel mill to make vanadium-alloy steel. And then, in 1908, he began using the new vanadium-alloy steel in the chassis of the time-honored Ford Model-T – reducing its weight to about half that of contemporary automobiles.
There's no doubt that Ford's assembly line process enabled the mass production and consumption of the Model T. But it was Ford's use of the vanadium-alloy steel that gave American consumers a superior product – lighter, stronger and more affordable.
"The fine even distribution of the elements – the uniformity of structure indicate the superior quality of vanadium."– Henry Ford, 1910
Metallurgical technology has rapidly advanced since Ford's time. New processes are continually being developed to improve the effectiveness and benefits of using vanadium as an alloying agent in steel.
And today, this exotic metal has become of the best steel strengtheners known to man. With modern processes, just 0.1% vanadium content in steel can double its strength.
Lightweight, high-strength alloy steels allow producers to build superior products with less steel, saving significant material costs. And in the coming years, significant increases in vanadium-alloy consumption are forecast as global industrial producers fiercely seek costs-saving measures while retaining quality.
Vanadium isn't a significantly rare metal – being about two or three times more abundant than copper. But like many other minerals, high concentrations that are economically feasible to mine are only found in a few places. Most of the world's vanadium reserves are isolated in only three countries: China, South Africa and Russia. Less than 3% of the world's resources of vanadium is located elsewhere.