So-called "fake flake" is the name given to man-made
graphite flake that has been falsely sold as natural flake or
has been blended into genuine flake. In these circumstances,
buyers are misled into purchasing material that will not
perform to the same standard as natural flake.
While it lacks the durability of genuine natural flake, fake
flake does have a useful role in the market when sold fairly
and openly as a lower-cost alternative to natural flake. "The
properties are different to those of pristine flakes and for
many applications they can’t be used –
like for expandable graphite," one producer source said.
In these cases, it goes under several names, such as
"man-made", "pressed" or even "synthetic" flake in China. The
latter needs to be clearly differentiated from the more
expensive and high-quality synthetic anode graphite that more
commonly carries the same name.
Most fake flake is in larger flake sizes, such as graphite
flake, 94%, +80 mesh, because high profits can be achieved with
this material since it is higher priced than smaller flake
Fastmarkets’ price assessment for graphite flake 94% C, +80 mesh, fob China,
was $920 per tonne on November 12, 2020, up by $10 from $910
per tonne on November 5. But the fake flake equivalent sold for
around $400-700 per tonne on an fob basis. When it is sold
honestly as man-made or pressed flake, it is priced toward the
top end of that range, according to sources.
How it is made
"Fake graphite is still graphite, however it is small pieces
of graphite pressed together, so they appear as large flake
– so-called fake flakes," the producer source said. At
its simplest, it is made using the waste from the processing of
flake into spherical graphite fines, which is then held
together using a binder.
The average yield of spherical graphite processes is 30-50%
of its feedstock volume. That is, 50-70% of the feedstock
graphite is waste. There are about 120,000 tonnes of waste from
spherical graphite production, which could be processed into
flake graphite and used in the refractories sector, a trader in
China said. So there is a lot of this material available.
"This is typically pushed through an extruder and then
dried," a second producer source said. The process has
developed over time while the market in China for large flake
sizes tightened. "Initially, they would only do wet compression
[water only], then when people caught on they began using
water-soluble binders. They eventually moved onto more
sophisticated binders," a graphite trader said.
Since then, variations and improvements have emerged,
according to a second trader source. "While [Chinese producers]
started to press inferior flake into larger flake [in the
1980s], we have now a wide range of 'fake’ flake
materials," a second graphite trader said. "We have detected at
least three precursor materials."
Demand for +894 material for expandable graphite has risen,
while supply in China has tightened, resulting in increased
prevalence of fake flake in the market in recent months. "Most
of the larger flake graphite [in China] will be processed into
expandable graphite or other value-added product locally
instead of selling the raw material directly," a third graphite
trader told Fastmarkets.
On the one hand, the material has been – and
continues to be – sold to mislead buyers. At the same
time, a market has also emerged for buyers who have knowingly
acquired this lower-cost material.
"The market took a negative view of the deceptive practice,
but as economics show, the buyers liked the lower pricing
despite the lower performance of the pressed materials," the
first trader said. The crucial element is whether the material
is sold as something it is not, or after the buyer has been
fully informed of its components and its uses.
"Fast forward to [the present day] where pressed flake is an
accepted and marketable material, with an entire segment built
around the production of goods… However, the presence of
this material when it has been falsely sold has a strong
negative effect on buyers and can have a strongly detrimental
effect on trust when it has been sold fraudulently," the first
"Maybe I should not buy from Chinese producers any more but
I am not sure if I can access enough material from Africa to
meet my needs," one market participant said, who had been sold
fake flake under the guise of pure natural flake.
Why it is used
"Sometimes buyers agree to have some fake flake graphite
mixed in as long as it will not affect the refractory
characteristics of the material. We have some customers in the
domestic market who would like to have gradual tests of the
mixture so as to reduce their cost," a fourth trader said.
The crucial element is the basis on which the material is
sold, whether the buyer has informed the seller of the material
involved. When sold fairly, it has attributes sought by buyers
in addition to the lower cost.
"Our company policy is to provide full transparency on those
materials, as some of them surprisingly give better results in
the customer process than the 'real’ flake.
Because of that, we refer to those products as man-made flake
and do not take advantage of windfall margins by cheating the
customers," the second trader said.
In fact, it has developed a respected position in the market
among some buyers, sources said. "In a world of carbon
footprint issues, recycling and environmental awareness, this
is not a product to be damned. Of course it has nothing to do
with mined natural graphite," the second trader said. "There is
a market for it like minced meat burgers made from tofu. If you
use it to cheat a meat lover, this is certainly unethical, but
it is pleasing vegan/green target groups."
So it can have a role in the foundry and the refractories
sector under certain circumstances, according to sources.
"This can be enough of an incentive to use it until there is
an issue," the third producer source said. "The performance may
pass through undetected or undifferentiated against other
material quality issues from other inputs."
How to identify it
While this material has a genuine role in parts of the
market, it also continues to be falsely sold as more expensive
pure natural graphite. To avoid being deceived, buyers must be
able to identify it. There are several different processes
employed while buyers seek to avoid being sold false
"Detection came in the way of simple attrition for the early
versions, then came the simple test of water
'solubility’ which removed the binder, and now the
process is quite perfected, making it difficult to determine.
Aside from the difference in visual morphology of the flake, it
is difficult to detect, except for one test surface area," the
first trader said. "The fine precursor material will have a
significantly higher surface area than that of pristine +80 or
+50 mesh flake."
It can be difficult to detect the fake material that has
been processed with the waste from spherical graphite.
"I heard that, for the fake larger flake graphite, it could
be tested with an 80-mesh filter, fake flake graphite might
have a lesser share of the 80-mesh because of the finer feature
of the feedstock," the third trader said.
Testing is not always successful, so fake flake could be
successfully and inappropriately used until there is a problem,
market sources said.
"For the quality control [QC] process, this material can be
differentiated with a small acid test [using sulfuric acid]
which disintegrates the binder and leaves you with the fine
graphite residue. This material is designed to bypass the QC
testing for particle size distribution [sieve screening] and
carbon content QC, so it’s often not picked up
until there is an issue," the third producer source said.
When the material has been sold with the intent to mislead
the buyer, sellers take precautions in an effort to carry
through the deception. "Because the material is usually sold as
'genuine’ flake, pre-shipment samples sent would
typically be real +80 mesh, only switching to the man-made
product for delivery," the third producer added.
Suspicions should be raised for the potential sale of
material from new contacts offering spot material at an
unusually good price. Reportedly, sales are mostly from
intermediate processors and traders rather than graphite flake
While there are relatively few producers, the Chinese
graphite market has many small-sized traders and processors so
it can be difficult to identify who might sell material
"We spend a great deal of time vetting our suppliers," the
second trader said, "and we tend to shy away from low-cost
'spot buys’ from traders, preferring to purchase,
typically, directly from mine operators that we know and have