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FEATURE: Graphite supply a concern in meeting growing battery demand


Graphite demand expected to be three times higher by 2030

Shortage of mining projects, processing outside China

More investment needed to increase supply

  • Author
  • Jacqueline Holman
  • Editor
  • Jonathan Fox
  • Commodity
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  • Battery Metals

While there has been a spotlight on possible supply shortages of battery cathode materials, such as lithium and cobalt, as battery demand grows, not as much attention has been paid to graphite, despite the anode material facing the same issues.

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Battery demand is mostly being boosted by rising electric vehicle demand, with S&P Global Platts Analytics forecasting global light-duty EV sales to rise to around 26.8 million by 2030, up from 6.29 million in 2021.

By 2030, graphite demand is expected to be triple the current global production of material, Tirupati CEO Shishir Poddar told S&P Global Platts.

"Globally, we produce 1.3-1.4 million mt/year, but most of that goes to applications other than energy storage (10-15%)," Poddar said.

"By 2030, it is estimated that another 4-5 million mt/year of graphite will be needed. Conservatively, around 3.5 million mt/year."

Most production is currently concentrated in China, although a number of companies are exploring, developing and producing in eastern Africa, as well as Scandinavia and the Americas.

"Some projects have started in Africa, including ours, but the fact is that the knowledge about graphite as a material in its production is limited and the learning curve is also be a consistent quality graphite producer," Poddar said.

Tirupati owns the Sahamamy and Vatomina graphite projects in Madagascar and is acquiring the Montepuez and Balama Central projects from Australia's Battery Minerals.

Mining projects

The issue with graphite supply is not a shortage of resources, but rather of mining projects, Walkabout Resources CEO Andrew Cunningham told Platts.

"What's needed is quite staggering," he said, adding that pricing and grades were an issue, as there were few projects that had high enough grades to sell product above their production costs.

"We're fortunate that we have high grades, so we can produce at a low cost," he said.

Walkabout is developing the Lindi Jumbo project in Tanzania, which is on schedule to be commissioned in the third quarter of 2022.

The small flake graphite price would need to stay around the current highs of about $800/mt or above to allow some higher-cost projects to come online, Cunningham said, compared to a normal price around $500-$550/mt, which is too low for these to make a profit.

"The fact is that China can switch on graphite production or they can increase it at some mines, but if the demand rises as fast as it's predicted, then it's going to draw graphite out of other uses as well," Cunningham said.

One battery analyst told Platts that there were "definitely going to be some bottlenecks over the next couple of years."

"There's a lot of dependence on how chemistry evolves from an anode perspective as well and how we look at the use of silicon and other materials in the cell anode, but I think that the main thing is the competition between the different end-use segments," he said.

While a market imbalance is expected, it is uncertain whether it would come from the migration away from synthetic towards natural flake graphite, or from a lack of processing capacity, the analyst said.

Some end-users blend synthetic and natural graphite to optimize the anode structure, as the former is a more standardized, uniform product.

Natural graphite has ESG benefits, as synthetic graphite is usually refined in China and is made from needle coke, a specialty grade of petcoke, which is a byproduct of the oil refining process.

Lack of processing facilities

Mined graphite is usually processed to 95-96% carbon purity on site, but must be processed further elsewhere into a spherical, coated 99.95% purity product to be used in battery cells.

Almost all these facilities are concentrated in China, even with the development of mines elsewhere.

"It's a case of trying to localize supply as much as anything and... ensure the quality of material makes its way to the supply chain," the analyst said.

A number of players are looking to remedy this.

Tirupati is expanding its Patalganga graphite processing facility near Mumbai and building another in Odisha, with Poddar saying it would look to develop processing facilities in Europe and the US in the future.

Syrah Resources is expanding its Vidalia battery anode material facility in Louisiana to 11,250 mt/year, which will process natural graphite from its Balama mine in Mozambique into active anode material.

Walkabout is concentrating on getting the initial mine into production and the plant running profitably, but might also look into the downstream option of beneficiating graphite for specialized markets in the future, Cunningham said.

More investment needed

To ensure enough supply meets demand, more investment is needed in graphite mining and processing, industry players told Platts.

"It's fairly similar to other battery markets where there's been underinvestment upstream for quite a long period," the battery analyst said.

Poddar said various bipartite arrangements should be looked at by prospective producers and end-users.

"If we put in sufficient input, which includes developing core expertise, core projects, deciphering more resources and developing them, in which all concerned parties would possibly need to play a role... it's not impossible that we meet our graphite needs at 2030," he said.

"It is likely that we will not as of today, based on the ecosystem that exists today, but there is time to achieve the targets."

He said African governments also had to ensure their regulatory frameworks improved to be more conducive to investment.

While Poddar said graphite could be lucrative from an investor perspective, BMO Commodities Research Managing Director Colin Hamilton told Platts that, as with other battery metals, everyone was still learning and investors tended to focus on commodities they knew and were comfortable with.

"There is interest, but these projects are so small-scale and the technical challenges are there," Hamilton said. "No one understands it... if an investor asks what's the graphite price, it's very hard to get it because it's not freely available."

"It's the education process and also visibility... people will be wanting price history that frankly we don't have and that makes it harder to fund some of these projects."

Another issue was that, while graphite use in anodes is well established, this chemistry is due to change with the rise of solid-state batteries, which also harmed graphite's investment case, Hamilton said, as few investors were interested in something with only a five-to-ten-year demand cycle.

"What I'd say on the graphite side, and this is true across all metals, is that people are looking for alternatives for that China value chain and that is key across everything," Hamilton said.