Graphene and its potential impact on graphite
By Simon Moores for Industrial Minerals
Over-hyped or game-changer? How the differing views on graphene could result in lack of integration with flake graphite mining
Graphene has emerged as a new battlefront for the graphite industry's juniors.
While graphene has enjoyed global publicity over the last 18 months, it is still very much a market in its infancy leaving some to question its relevance to the natural graphite mining industry.
The school of thought from long established producers of graphite is that, at best, the material’s bearing on the natural graphite industry is being over-hyped. This pessimism hasn’t, however, dampened excitement among the graphite juniors pursuing graphene; instead, they see it as a rare opportunity to be part of a globally transformative industry.
This week saw the most recent announcement from Mason Graphite, which is to acquire 40% of NanoXplore Inc. in what is the fourth deal to tie a flake graphite developer to a graphene one.
This adds to Focus Graphite’s deal with Grafoid Inc. in 2011 (the first of its kind in the graphite space), Northern Graphite’s 2012 supply and patent agreement with Grafen Chemical Industries, and Lomiko Metals’ partnership with Graphene Laboratories which was announced in early 2013.
These companies are pursuing processing routes based on exfoliation – in essence stripping layers of graphene away from flakes of graphite. This technique is going head-to-head with the chemical exfoliation and chemical vapour deposition techniques, neither of which require natural graphite.
In terms of graphite volumes, graphene’s impact will almost certainly be minimal. The very principal behind the mechanical exfoliation process means little flake graphite is needed to produce graphene, a point which breads cynicism among the established order who see greater potential in the battery sector due to its potential for explosive volume growth.
Nevertheless, shifting volumes of graphite into the graphene industry has never been the primary goal for this side of the industry. Developing a value-added business model that is attractive to investors is the aim.
The biggest impact on the graphite industry is likely to come from the investment in processing innovation, which will certainly be needed if the sector is to create a marketable graphene product.
For many years now, the graphite industry has lacked the technological processing infrastructure to develop new value-added products in an economical way. To take graphene theory from laboratory to market reality is the biggest challenge facing the industry today.
Graphene set to be separate from graphite
Cultivating a completely new line of end-markets is something which the industry has not had to do in modern times. It requires a creative and optimistic outlook, a belief that customers will want to use graphene, and the willingness to lead and take that risk.
The direction the industry takes hinges upon identifying a commercially viable end product that will be adopted by the market. While graphene in theory has endless applications, the reality is that finding users willing to take the risk of adopting an entirely new material is a difficult task.
That being said, it is unlikely that the majority of graphite miners or processors will ever want to enter the graphene race. Many will feel it is too big a departure from their core industrial businesses of refractories, foundries, lubricants and, to some extent, batteries. It would also take significant R&D investment to compete with the public and private companies that are already established, many of which are leading university spin-offs.
Therefore expect to see the rise of a new style of company, a carbon nano-tech company that may use small volumes of flake graphite but won’t share strong ties with the mining industry. As a result, also expect the focus of natural graphite producers to be fixed on refractories and batteries while graphene’s pioneers attempt to create a new industrial paradigm.
On the flipside, do not underestimate the fear of missing out. This could force one or two of biggest graphite companies into action. Watch this space.