Overview

With its unique structural properties, graphite is commonly used in products all around us.

Graphite is in smartphones and remote devices but the biggest growth demand for graphite is being driven by the clean energy movement and need for Lithium-ion batteries which actually contain more graphite than they did lithium.

It’s why Elon Musk has stated that Lithium-ion batteries “should be called nickel graphite batteries”.

Because of this, electric car manufacturers are scrambling to secure long-term battery supply contracts or, as Tesla are doing, build their own gigafactories where graphite will the the largest raw material input.

Beyond its use in lithium-ion batteries, it is commonly found in smartphones, machinery components and fire retardant coatings for buildings.

Graphite and diamonds are the only two naturally formed polymers of carbon. While graphite is as tough as diamonds, it’s also softer, very flexible and the lightest of all reinforcing agents, highly resistant to chemical attack.

Inert and highly heat-resistant, which, together with its great natural strength and stiffness, graphite is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity which can retain its integrity at temperatures of up to (and sometimes exceeding) 3600 degrees Celsius. 

For both aspiring and established graphite producers, ‘blue sky’ is the incremental demand created by its use in a number of ‘green’ initiatives, among them lithium ion (‘Li-ion’) batteries, fuel cells, flow batteries and pebble-bed nuclear reactors. Across its plethora of uses, many such applications have the potential, individually, to consume more graphite than all its current uses combined.

Types

Flake

  • Least abundant
  • Carbon range 85 to 98 per cent
  • Price around four times higher than for amorphous
  • Used in many traditional applications
  • Suits emerging technology applications (such as Li-ion batteries)

Amorphous

  • Most abundant
  • Comparatively low carbon content (70 to 80 per cent)
  • No visible crystallinity
  • Lowest purity of all types
  • Not suitable for use in most applications

High-crystalline

  • Extracted only in Sri Lanka
  • Carbon content 90 to 99 per cent
  • Scarcity and high price restrict its viability for most applications

Synthetic

Synthetic graphite results from the high-temperature treatment of amorphous carbon materials. In the United States, the primary feedstock for synthetic graphite is calcined petroleum coke and coal tar pitch. This makes it very expensive to produce (up to 10 times more than natural graphite). As a result, synthetic graphite is used predominantly in specialty applications in which its superior consistency and purity (+99 per cent) over natural graphite justify the premium price.

Graphite has come a long way since the days of the humble ‘lead’ pencil. Today, its applications are multifarious and ongoing, particularly within certain industry groups.

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Uses

Steel

Traditionally, demand for graphite (with its high fusion point) has been led by the steel industry, in applications such as the following.

As a lining for ladles and crucibles handling molten metal.

As a component in the lining of blast furnaces (refractories) – currently this application consumes more graphite (mostly medium and large flake) than any other, with 3 to 5 per cent growth in the past decade.

As an agent to increase the carbon content of steel.

Batteries

Graphite is used as the anode in all major battery technologies. For that application, the flake size is less important than a high purity of 99.9 per cent.

Right now, the battery industry represents the largest potential market for graphite, particularly for use in the Li-ion batteries that power so many of today’s electronic devices and electric vehicles (‘EVs’) – from smart phones and tablets to all-electric autonomous container ships and Teslas, and so much in between.

Last year, Elon Musk averred that the Li-ion batteries Tesla produces should really be called Nickel-Graphite batteries, given that the amount of lithium they contain in comparison to the nickel and graphite components of the cathode and anode respectively is “like the salt on the salad.”

Today, the battery market accounts for 25 per cent of current graphite demand (much of it from China), a figure that’s growing at around 9 per cent per annum (see Supply section below).

Foils

Graphite foils – composed of 98 per cent graphite (mostly large and jumbo flake) – are excellent conductors of heat and electricity and their low thermal resistance makes them ideal for use in high-power applications requiring maximum heat transfer. This application presently represents the fastest growing market for flake graphite, accounting for 10 per cent of demand.

Automobiles

Historically, the automotive industry has used graphite in the brake linings of heavier vehicles, for gaskets and in clutch materials. Of course, with the advent of EVs of all types, shapes and sizes, graphite is integral too to the batteries that power them. Take the Tesla, arguably the world’s most high-profile EV: each requires around 36 kilograms of graphite.

Emerging technologies

Large-scale stationary and mobile fuel cells – unlike batteries, which store energy, these generate energy via a chemical reaction, making them a ‘clean’ alternative to traditional fuel-combustion processes.

Vanadium redox (flow) batteries – described by Forbes as the “latest, greatest utility-scale battery storage technology to emerge on the commercial market,” they’re compact, containerised, non-flammable, low-maintenance, re-usable over semi-finite cycles, discharge 100 per cent of the energy stored and don’t degrade for more than 20 years.

Graphene – a seemingly endless desire for products that are faster, stronger, smaller and lighter impels the development of materials that almost defy the imagination, among them graphene. Touted as “the thinnest and strongest known material in the universe,” it’s a single-layer lattice of carbon atoms with applications that (hypothetically) range from batteries to super capacitors, biological engineering to optical electronics, composite materials to ultra-filtration.

Pebble-bed nuclear reactors – small, very high-temperature reactors, these are graphite-moderated, gas-cooled and feature spherical fuel elements known as ‘pebbles’.

Other new products in research and development include nano-lubricants, ultra-light fire-retardant foams and conductive plastic and polymer applications. All seek to harness graphite’s excellent thermal and electrical conductivity, ability to reduce wear and friction, incredible heat tolerance and lightness and strength.

Supply and Demand

Supply

In 2016, the top ten natural graphite-producing countries were as follows. (Note: 1 MT equals 1,000 kilograms.)

China (780,000 MT)

India (170,000 MT)

Brazil (80,000 MT)

Turkey (32,000 MT)

North Korea (30,000 MT)

Mexico (22,000 MT)

Canada (21,000 MT)

Russia (15,000 MT)

Norway and Madagascar (8,000 MT each)

Demand

In total, the graphite market averages around 2.5 MT a year globally, which includes the sum of natural and synthetic graphite production. Currently, at around 1 MT per year, demand for natural graphite – 60 per cent flake and 40 per cent amorphous – exceeds that for magnesium, molybdenum, cobalt, tungsten, lithium and rare earths combined.

However, the market for amorphous graphite is in decline, since only flake graphite that can be economically rounded and upgraded to 99.95 per cent purity is suitable for use in Li-ion batteries.

During the past decade, demand for flake graphite has been growing at about 5 per cent per annum, fuelled by rapid and ongoing industrial growth in China, India and other emerging economies, and the development of remarkable innovations that will transform the way we live in the 21st century.

Disruptive advantage

The fundamental pillars of the graphite market are compelling. Besides its traditional uses, flake graphite is seen as having a disruptive advantage as a key ingredient in new technology applications for energy-storage products, as discussed above. Consider the following.

The natural graphite market has doubled in size every decade.

Demand will outpace supply without identification of new sources.

Graphite is the anode material of choice for all batteries.

China is transforming the world’s graphite supply pattern, purchasing 300 thousand tonnes of the mineral each year.

Falling production from Chinese graphite mines, due to closures and a shift from flake to fine or amorphous graphite, presents a supply opportunity for developers with high-quality flake graphite resources.

Tesla put graphite back in the spotlight in 2015 by announcing the production of its Powerwall for residential use, and by building its huge battery-cell facility in Nevada, which began production in 2017.

Many others, too, have now joined or are joining the race to supply the burgeoning market for electric vehicles and energy storage.

Outlook

Disruptive advantage

Recently, Peter Tertzakian writing for OilPrice.com, had this to say about the price of key commodities, including graphite, and what lies ahead.

“Lithium-ion batteries continue to fall in price and increase in utility. That’s why we’re scaling up from watch batteries to iPhones to electric vehicles to home storage units and beyond. But key battery ingredients are lithium, cobalt and graphite. Commodity prices are likely to rise. All energy systems trace their baggage back to natural resource extraction; just ask anyone in the fossil fuel business.”

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