The Rocks at the Top of the World

Workers near Minas Ragra. Ore mined in Peru was sent 3,800 miles to a U.S. smelting plant via llama, train, and ship. (R. Whetham Collection)

Workers near Minas Ragra. Ore mined in Peru was sent 3,800 miles to a U.S. smelting plant via llama, train, and ship. (R. Whetham Collection, illustration by Willie Fetchko Graphic Design)

For almost 100 years after its first discovery in 1801 the element vanadium languished in obscurity. It was rare and lacked any apparent use. All that changed at the turn of the century when John Oliver Arnold discovered that adding a tiny amount of the element to steel made the steel alloy stronger. Soon after, Henry Ford picked up a fragment of a wrecked French race car. Surprised by its light weight, he sent the piece off for analysis only to be further surprised to learn the steel contained vanadium. Vanadium steel, Ford learned, also turned out to be rustproof and shock and vibration resistant—the perfect material for a new industry in search of new materials. The first Model-T car built by Ford contained vanadium steel in its crankshafts, axles, gears, and springs. Initially, vanadium’s life in industry appeared likely to be cut short: there was no single significant source of the element, little mining of it, and no other options for those looking to make stronger steel on a large scale. But one day in 1905, in one of the world’s most remote and harshest regions, two men discovered the vanadium equivalent of a gold mine.

That day, Antenor Rizo Patrón Lequérica and Eulogio E. Fernandini de la Quintana rode their horses to Minas Ragra, a windswept, barren area on the edge of the Andes about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of the capital, Lima, and more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the nearest railway. The high altitude, 3 miles (5 kilometers) above sea level, turned even a short amble into an exhausting proposition. But the two had made the grueling journey for a reason. Fernandini owned a nearby lead, silver, and copper mine, as well as a smelter to refine the ores. Rizo Patrón managed the smelter laboratory. In search of fuel to power the smelter, they collected samples of any rock that looked burnable. After filling their packs they got on their horses for the return journey.

As night approached and temperatures dropped below freezing, the two men lodged at Hacienda Hayarragra, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Minas Ragra. To warm their icy room they burned one of the samples—a shiny lump of what looked like coal. Though the samples did not appear to contain pyrite or any other familiar sulfide minerals, the burning lump produced a surprisingly large amount of poisonous sulfurous gas. Rizo Patrón analyzed the sample on his return to the lab and discovered a new mineral, one that contained vanadium. While Rizo Patrón got naming rights—he called it patronite (VS4), after himself—Fernandini applied for mining property rights.

Meanwhile, in the United States a man named Joseph M. Flannery had a problem. Flannery managed the Flannery Bolt Company at Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, which produced flexible stay bolts used primarily for steam-locomotive boilers. Flannery wanted high-strength steel alloys for his bolts. He had heard about vanadium findings in Peru and in 1906 dispatched two American geologists, Donnel F. Hewett and Alfred Thompson, to search for a supply. The two men first visited the Llacsacocha mine, where vanadium had also been discovered, but found nothing worth mining. Disappointed, they returned to Lima, where they planned to board a ship for home. Before departing they met with José Julián Bravo, who managed the laboratory for the Corps of Mining Engineers of Peru and who had written a report on patronite. Bravo showed a sample from Minas Ragra to the two Americans, who promptly turned around and headed inland again. Their subsequent report to Flannery convinced him to buy Minas Ragra.