Debate on synthetic vs natural graphite rages on at conference

By Davide Ghilotti
Published: Monday, 22 October 2018

The choice of whether to use natural or synthetic graphite is informed by cost, end-use, performance and other properties, according to delegates at a recent industry conference.

The split of the global market for graphite between natural flake and synthetic graphite was a regular topic of debate among delegates at the 7th Graphite & Graphene Conference in London.

While high-precision markets for graphite develop, such as lithium-ion batteries and flame retardants, the industry is asking whether consumers will opt for natural or artificial material, and how this will shape global consumption.

As well as the different costs of the materials – with natural flake still significantly cheaper than synthetic graphite – conference participants noted other factors that must be taken into account.

"You need to compare [like with like], and that doesn’t happen in many cases. While cost is a factor, you need to consider the performance and properties of your material," Fabrizio Corti, business director for synthetic graphite at Imerys Graphite & Carbon, said.

Questions about the long-term sustainability of both natural and synthetic materials, and the indirect costs related to both types, will also need to be addressed, Corti added.

Synthetic graphite supply is less affected by the problems in mining or processing in producing areas – and these, as has been shown by China’s environmentally driven restrictions, can disrupt output. But the production process for synthetic is energy-intensive, thus increasing costs.

At present, there is a perception, shared by several industry participants, that demand for synthetic graphite is growing quicker than it is for natural material.

"Synthetic is growing a bit faster than natural, in my opinion," Gerry Hand, vice president for marketing at Superior Graphite, said. His view was shared by other delegates.

At the same time, most participants agreed that the majority of users will settle into using a mix of both types of graphite. Depending on the application for their output, the share would tip in favor of one or the other.

Participants canvassed by Fastmarkets during the London conference suggested that this market split could be 50:50. But a 60:40 split in favor of either type of material was also suggested.

Batteries: a maze of formulas

In the battery space, there is still a perceived lack of clarity on battery component makers’ production processes and inputs.

"When it comes to battery makers, not even we, who have been supplying graphite to them for many years, clearly understand the exact composition of their formulas [regarding the proportions of natural and synthetic]," one delegate told Fastmarkets on the sidelines of the event.

Different sub-sectors of the battery industry may rely on a larger share of synthetic graphite, while others may use more natural material, he added.

Battery makers supplying the consumer electronics markets have relied on natural graphite feedstock for years. This is likely to continue, the delegate said, but noted that anode producers for the electric vehicle sector seem to rely more heavily on synthetic graphite.

"You also must consider whether you are looking at international battery makers in South Korea or Japan, or at companies in China supplying the domestic market," the delegate added. "There are bound to be differences there too."