Vanadium is a chemical element with the symbol V and atomic number 23. It is a hard, silvery gray, ductile and malleable transition metal. The element is found only in chemically combined form in nature, but once isolated artificially, the formation of an oxide layer stabilizes the free metal somewhat against further oxidation.
Andrés Manuel del Río discovered compounds of vanadium in 1801 by analyzing a new lead-bearing mineral he called "brown lead," and presumed its qualities were due to the presence of a new element, which he named erythronium (Greek for "red") since, upon heating, most of its salts turned from their initial color to red. Four years later, however, he was (erroneously) convinced by other scientists that erythronium was identical to chromium. Chlorides of vanadium were generated in 1830 by Nils Gabriel Sefström who thereby proved that a new element was involved, which he named "vanadium" after the Germanic goddess of beauty and fertility, Vanadís (Freyja). Both names were attributed to the wide range of colors found in vanadium compounds. Del Rio's lead mineral was later renamed vanadinite for its vanadium content. In 1867 Henry Enfield Roscoe obtained the pure element.
Vanadium occurs naturally in about 65 different minerals and in fossil fuel deposits. It is produced in China and Russia from steel smelter slag; other countries produce it either from the flue dust of heavy oil, or as a byproduct of uranium mining. It is mainly used to produce specialty steel alloys such as high speed tool steels. The most important industrial vanadium compound, vanadium pentoxide, is used as a catalyst for the production of sulfuric acid.
Large amounts of vanadium ions are found in a few organisms, possibly as a toxin. The oxide and some other salts of vanadium have moderate toxicity. Particularly in the ocean, vanadium is used by some life forms as an active center of enzymes, such as the vanadium bromoperoxidase of some ocean algae. Vanadium is probably a micronutrient in mammals, including humans, but its precise role in this regard is unknown.
Vanadium was originally discovered by Andrés Manuel del Río, a Spanish-born Mexican mineralogist, in 1801. Del Río extracted the element from a sample of Mexican "brown lead" ore, later named vanadinite. He found that its salts exhibit a wide variety of colors, and as a result he named the element panchromium (Greek: παγχρώμιο "all colors"). Later, Del Río renamed the element erythronium (Greek: ερυθρός "red") as most of its salts turned red upon heating. In 1805, the French chemist Hippolyte Victor Collet-Descotils, backed by del Río's friend Baron Alexander von Humboldt, incorrectly declared that del Río's new element was only an impure sample of chromium. Del Río accepted Collet-Descotils' statement and retracted his claim.