Belief in sustainable, long term growth in the worldwide
graphite industry appeared untainted at the 4th IM Graphite
and Graphene Conference in Berlin this week, even as doubts continue to hang
over whether a positive market inflection can come soon enough to save the bulk
of the sector’s juniors.
“We’ve some companies drop out and new ones come in,” one delegate
from a leading industrial minerals group, who preferred not to be named, told IM.
“One of the great things about this industry is its agility
and ability to pick things up and run with them,” he said, remarking on the
optimism that pervaded this year’s meeting.
The aptitude of the graphite industry to successfully
diversify its appeal and application as a critical mineral for the future was
reflected in the range of topics discussed in Berlin, which ranged from traditional
refractories and electrodes to batteries, nuclear graphite and, of course, graphene.
Notwithstanding the array of potential growth opportunities,
both the natural and synthetic graphite industries have suffered over the last
three years from the global downturn in steel manufacturing, coupled with the
slower than anticipated emergence of demand growth from the battery industry.
Lithium-ion and other graphite-containing chemistries are
credited with being a go-to source for next generation, green and reliable
energy, but as Stephen Riddle, CEO of US-based Asbury Graphite Mills told
delegates, this demand is “not here yet”.
“Growth will come from the battery market,” Riddle said. “This
will be from batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs) and energy storage – not
cell phones or IPads. These don’t use enough graphite,” he added.
Riddle warned juniors and investors against overstating the smoothness
path from mine to market and eventual profit for graphite projects. “There are
a lot of hurdles to overcome to be profitable,” he added.
High value processing
Fabrizio Corti, senior vice president for sales and business
development at Switzerland headquartered Imerys
Graphite and Carbon, said that, for reasons of purity and physical
structure, much of the world’s natural graphite is unsuitable for the high
value markets many juniors are aiming at.
“Only a very small proportion of the graphite we have today
is suitable for high end markets and even this requires heavy processing,” he
He explained that choosing the right production process for
graphite is key to accessing high end markets. “Just being a carbon precursor
producer is not enough for these markets,” he said, adding that there is likely
to be competition between natural and synthetic graphite material when it comes
to securing a share of the battery market.
From a sustainability viewpoint, Corti said that natural
graphite producers currently throw away around 60% of their volume in the
process of producing battery grade material and questioned whether the EV
industry would continue to tolerate this waste ratio as its supply chains come
under increasing scrutiny.
“Of course, high purity synthetic graphite is more
expensive,” he conceded, but said that on an “apples with apples” comparison,
natural and synthetic graphite of similar grade are roughly level pegging on
With around 40% of this year’s conference delegates
originating from the junior mining sector, with projects at various stages of
exploration in countries including Canada, Sri Lanka, Inner Mongolia,
Madagascar and Tanzania, there was acknowledged to be considerable scope for
new, innovative processing designs that extract the most value from different
geological occurrences of graphite.
According to Reiner Haus, managing director of process
design experts Dornfer Anzaplan in Germany, mining companies need to tailor
their processing techniques to get the best out of their individual mineral
“The main challenge miners face is that you can’t change the
distribution of flake size in your deposit,” Haus said.
He explained that “standard processing” techniques based on
grinding and flotation, as applied to flake graphite ores today, destroy a
significant proportion of the large flakes. “This creates a lot of wastage,
just to produce a few large flakes.”
Haus said that processing needs to follow and keep the benefits
of a given ore and encouraged junior graphite developers to investigate new
techniques when selecting a process for their projects. “Think outside the box –
look at what else is available before you decide,” he said.
Despite the present oversupply
pricing and subdued near term demand projections for natural and synthetic
graphite, Gerry Hand, vice president for marketing at US-based Superior
Graphite, said that downstream consumers of graphite are still looking for
supply from outside China.
“Non-Chinese supply is still desirable for risk mitigation
purposes,” he said, noting that there is a shift underway towards more
value-added graphite production in China, reducing the amount of raw material
available for buyers in the rest of the world.
He echoed a point made by Klaus Rathberger, managing
director at Germany’s Georg Luh Gmbh, that most of the world’s spherical
graphite – the type of material used in batteries – is made in China and that
any new entrants to the market will need to match or undercut China on cost in
order to get a foothold in the market.
Morgan Advanced Materials’ global technology director, Andy
Goshe, also suggested that China is making significant headway with graphene
science, while John Hykawy, president of Canadian analytical services firm,
Stormcrow Capital, said that developments in the nuclear industry, already
underway in China, could provide an opening for suppliers of extremely high
purity natural graphite.
He discussed the shift towards ‘generation four’ graphite moderated
pebble bed nuclear reactors, which currently rely on synthetic graphite to get
the purity and consistency of material needed to manufacture the graphite ‘pebbles’.
He said that plans to build 70 GWe of nuclear power in China
by 2030 could require 340,000 tonnes of graphite in the initial build – some of
which could be supplied by the mining industry, although to date only the Canadian
Ventures and Canada
Carbon have published results suggesting that they can achieve the required
Of the numerous regions that are emerging as
increasingly significant non-Chinese sources of graphite, Madagascar, Sri
Lanka and Sweden have garnered some of the most intense interest over the last 12 months.
All three countries have graphite mining industries that
date back over a century and Sweden and Madagascar both saw past-producing
mines successfully reopened earlier this year by TSX-listed Flinders
Resources and London-based StratMin
Global Resources, respectively.
Craig Scherba, chief operating officer of
Resources, which is developing the Molo large flake graphite project in
south-central Madagascar, said that the successful startup of new graphite
mining operations, albeit from old projects, was a positive sign for the
“I think it is great that other companies are coming into
production in Madagascar. Each additional company that comes online proves that
the country is a good jurisdiction to work in,” he said.
Blair Way, CEO of Flinders, which has an offtake agreement
set up with Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Metallurgical Products GmbH, said that
although bringing a project into production was acknowledged to be a significant
achievement in the current market, this was not the end of the challenge.
“It takes time for this kind of achievement to be
reflected in market valuation,” he said, but stressed that the company is on a
strong growth path with a solid position in Europe’s graphite-consuming market.
For more on this year’s IM
Graphite and Graphene Conference, click on the links below:
’14: Imerys Graphite and Carbon reinforces commitment to Lac des Iles mine
’14: Graphite prices expected to remain broadly stable in 2015
’14: Tirupati Carbon to open 12,000 tpa flake graphite mine in Madagascar
within the next year
’14: No graphene fits all