Tirupati to open 12,000 tpa Madagascan graphite mine in 2015

By Laura Syrett
Published: Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Tirupati is targeting large flake concentrations, expecting its Madagascan material to command higher prices. Meanwhile a shift towards safer nuclear with Gen IV PBMRs could offer growth potential for natural graphite.

Jharkhand, India-based Tirupati Carbons and Chemicals is set to open a new 12,000 tpa flake graphite mine and plant in Madagascar before the end of 2015, the company revealed at the 4th IM Graphite and Graphene Conference in Berlin, Germany, in December.

Shishir Poddar, Tirupati’s CEO, said that the company, which already has two operating graphite mines and a 10,000 tpa project pending approval in India, was expanding to develop international deposits with higher concentrations of large flake graphite.

"India will be a force to be reckoned with in the future of the flake graphite industry," Poddar told delegates.

The new Madagascan project is located around 60km inland from the east coast port of Toamasina and consists predominantly of large flake graphite.

Poddar said that India currently consumes around 60,000 tpa graphite but that domestic production stood at just 24,000 tpa in 2014, with the balance imported mostly from China.

Tirupati initially aims to supply the domestic Indian graphite market, where consumption is led by refractories, industrial applications and anode manufacturing, but Poddar said that the company has plans to eventually become a global exporting company.

"We need to add capacity in a limited way," he said, pointing out that a rapid production ramp up would put unsustainable pressure on the currently delicate supply-demand balance.

Poddar said that owing to the higher large flake concentrations, Tirupati will be able to command an average price of $1,234/tonne for its Madagascar production, around 40% higher than the average selling price of its Indian graphite, which stands at around $879/tonne.

Poddar also revealed that the company intends to acquire further international graphite projects within the next few years and that Tirupati is also planning to become a public company over the same time frame as it grows its operations and market valuation.

Pebble bed nuclear could offer growth potential for natural graphite

A shift in the nuclear power industry towards the use of new 'Generation Four’ (Gen IV) reactors could provide a growth market for natural graphite suppliers capable of producing very high purity material, delegates at the Berlin conference heard.

Jon Hykawy, president of Canadian analytical services firm, Stormcrow Capital, told the conference that nuclear energy represents "one of the best new energy options" available, as the world tries to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels. 

"But for this to take hold, we need safe nuclear," he said.

Hykawy explained how the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) design, which uses fuel 'pebbles’ composed of a highly pure, nuclear grade graphite matrix hosting ceramic-coated fuel pellets as well as a graphite-lined reactor core, has been pursued for decades as a safer and more efficient alternative to conventional models.

PBMRs are considered Gen IV because they are designed to be inherently, passively safe, relying on gas rather than water as a cooling agent and that the high temperature resistance of the graphite in the pebbles allows the reactor to "calm itself down", even if the supply of coolant is shut off.

Hykawy pointed to calculations by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which suggest that an 110 MWe PBMR, based on MIT’s own design, requires 80 tonnes of graphite in the form of uranium-flecked pebbles; 28 tonnes of graphite as pure pebbles for the core neutron reflector; and 426 tonnes of solid graphite in the reactor’s outer reflector shield.

PBMRs also need to be 'fed’ new graphite pebbles on a daily basis, requiring around 31 tpa of top up material.

Using these estimated volumes, Hykawy said that China’s plans to build 70 GWe of PBMR nuclear power in China by 2030 could require 340,000 tonnes of graphite in the initial build, plus an additional 20,000 tpa for refuelling.

He noted that the migration to PBMR was already underway in China, but that it might take the rest of the world time to catch up.

Lucrative market

Nuclear grade graphite sells for well in excess of $10,000/tonne, but this has hitherto been the preserve of synthetic graphite because of the need for consistency and purity in reactor material, which requires an equivalent boron content (ECB) of less than 5 ppm.

According to Hykawy, in reality, an ECB of less than 2ppm is desirable for nuclear graphite. 

"So the overall winner for PBMR is probably going to be synthetic graphite," he said, but added that two Canadian natural graphite companies - Zenyatta Ventures, which owns the Albany graphite deposit in Ontario and Canada Carbon, which owns the Miller property in Quebec - have demonstrated the ability to produce the required purity, using a caustic bake process on the hydrothermal lump/vein-type ores yielded by the two deposits.

Hykawy concluded by saying that the nuclear graphite industry is small and controlled by just a handful of players, but that if natural graphite producers can secure a foothold in this market, prices of $10,000/tonne make nuclear material a lucrative business option, even for relatively small annual tonnages.