Scandinavia’s graphene potential

By Laura Syrett
Published: Friday, 21 February 2014

Scandinavia is known for its iron ore deposits and fossil fuels, but it also holds vast amounts of graphite which could be used to develop a graphene industry in this exciting hub

Scandinavia is an historic graphite-producing region, with past producing deposits becoming the target of redevelopment projects in a handful of areas across Norway and Sweden over the past three years.

In Janaury 2013, Sweden’s Chalmers University was at the head of a successful bid for a grant of at least €500m ($672*) from the European Commission’s flagship Future Emerging Technology (FET) initiative to research graphene.

The grant awarded, which is to be used for investigating production methods for the material, involving a total of 74 universities and companies, will be matched by financial support from other public and corporate sources, taking the total value of the award to Û1bn and will be paid out over the next 10 years.

As well as boosting Europe’s role in what is already an intensive global drive to develop and commercialise the properties of graphene, the single-atom thick layer of carbon which can be derived from natural graphite, will also help to raise the profile of Scandinavia’s graphite mining industry.

Norway is looking to take advantage of its indigenous reserves of the mineral and its own world-leading research capabilities to establish a graphene science industry.

Abalonyx, a Norwegian technology start-up company, has been working with graphene and graphene derivatives since 2008.

“It is well known that certain natural graphites are excellent raw materials for producing graphene in the forms of graphene oxide, chemically converted graphene and reduced graphene oxide,” Rune Wendelbo, founder and CEO of Abalonyx, told IM.

Abalonyx uses a modified version of the ‘Hummers method’ to develop a safe, scalable and reproducible process for making graphene from natural graphite, which has been automated and is now being commercialised.

Abalonyx has entered into a non-exclusive strategic agreement with Norwegian graphite junior Nordic Graphite to focus on developing a vertically integrated supply chain for graphene production and the companies are presently working jointly to scale up Abalonyx’s process to demonstration scale.

“We are also looking at other interesting materials, such as vein graphite from Sri Lanka, and plan to start demo-production in 2014,” Wendelbo said.

“For natural graphite to be the preferred raw material, it must be close to 100% crystalline, which is normally not the case with synthetic graphites,” he explained.

“We ran a pilot reactor for two months in 2012 using purified natural graphite as the raw material. The purpose of the pilot run was to confirm scalability, reproducibility and safety as well as acquiring a basis for our production cost estimates. Our cost estimate shows graphene oxide can be produced for Û22 ($30*)/kg,” he said.

“With our process, most impurities can be tolerated, up to a level of 5% or so, because they are separated from the graphene together with other wastes,” Wendelbo noted.

“In terms of flake size, there is no rule, but larger flakes will require a longer process time. For some end-uses, smaller flakes are preferred whereas for others, larger flakes are preferred.”

“For example, our sister company, Graphene Batteries, uses our graphene for battery applications, which have special requirements for product properties in order to boost battery performance. Graphene Batteries optimises Abalonyx’s graphene materials for their applications, as other end-users would do,” he added.

Swedish graphite

In Sweden, ASX-listed Talga Resources Ltd is looking to develop graphite projects in the north of the country where its two most advanced developments are the Nunasvaara and Raitajarvi deposits.

Nunasvaara is a microcrystalline (commonly known as amorphous) graphite deposit, with a size range of 2-300 microns, but is predominantly less than 50 microns and has a total indicated and inferred JORC resource of 7.6m tonnes grading at 24.4% C.

Raitajarvi is coarse flake, and has a JORC inferred resource of 4.3m tonnes grading at 7.1% C, with 3.4m tonnes grading at 7.3% C in the indicated category.

“At Raitajarvi, there was some metallurgical work done [on the deposit] by the Swedish Geological Survey [between 1974 and 1991]. As a standard coarse flake deposit, [it has] a bell curve around the large flake size and an 11% jumbo component,” CEO Mark Thompson told IM.

Potentially, Nunasvaara could be in production by early 2016, “but we have several stages of economic diligence to go yet; likewise, for Raitajarvi,” Thompson noted.

However, although the local fervour for graphene, batteries and graphite-consuming renewable technologies is strong in Sweden, Thompson isn’t throwing in his lot with next generation technology just yet. “I like traditional markets, the more basic the better. Batteries are exciting but growth is slower than anyone likes,” he said.

“Graphene also is exciting technically, but it is very early days for seeing which technology will win and therefore what product, if indeed any natural product, is required,” he added.

*Calculated February 2014