Graphite to 2020 – charging ahead?

Graphite hit the headlines again in 2015 when Tesla Motors began building its lithium-ion battery "gigafactory" near Sparks, northern Nevada at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Park. Despite their name, lithium-ion batteries are heavier consumers of graphite than lithium. The new factory will cost US$5Bn, with US$1.25Bn in the form of grants and incentives from the Nevada state government. Limited production will start in 2016. When fully on-stream in 2020, the gigafactory could double the world supply of lithium-ion batteries, mostly for the automotive market but also for residential stationary power packs. By 2020, Tesla is planning to make 35GWh of lithium-ion batteries a year. Some market commentators have speculated that the potential new market from Tesla alone will require at least 50,000tpy of graphite.

Natural/synthetic graphite competition

Roskill notes that in 2015, existing world demand for graphite in all batteries is estimated to total 125,000t. Of this total, natural graphite accounts for around 90,000t (70-75%) and synthetic graphite 35,000t (25-30%).  Batteries are an application where natural and synthetic graphite are truly in competition.  There will be a continued shift in world graphite markets away from amorphous natural graphite towards flake and synthetic graphite as emerging applications like batteries typically require large flake and/or high-purity grades.

Although battery-grade graphite has dominated media headlines in 2015, batteries represent less than 5% of the world market for natural and synthetic graphite. The major markets for natural and synthetic graphite, refractories and electrodes respectively, are both driven by developments in the steel market and both are struggling in 2015.

Lower prices means limited funding for new mines

Average prices of flake natural graphite have fallen almost continuously from the sustained peak seen between mid-2011 and early 2012.  The fall is as a result of reduced demand from steel refractories and slower economic growth in China.  Although some recovery in large flake prices was seen in July 2015, if lower prices continue, companies developing new graphite projects will be competing for an even smaller pool of investment opportunities.  Understanding the complexities of the graphite market (including its existing supply chains), finding real customers among graphite’s real (low glamour but high volume) end users and arranging offtake agreements with those customers will all be key to their survival.

Flake and vein exploration

New opportunities are arising within the natural graphite industry as companies explore vast flake resources in Mozambique and potential high-quality vein graphite resources in Sri Lanka and North America.  Around a quarter of all new capacity could be in Canada, where more than 30 credible flake graphite projects are being investigated. Other potential new sources are in Australia, Africa and Canada.

Amorphous consolidation in China

China has consolidated graphite mining in Hunan province, the most important area for amorphous production worldwide.  South Graphite was set up in 2010 to take control of 200-250 small, privately-owned mines and bring them under state control.  Production levels are still recovering from closures during the buy-out process.  China is still the world's largest producer of natural graphite, both amorphous and flake, representing more than 70% of total global supply, according to Roskill estimates.

Chinese flake graphite developments

World natural graphite production is split almost equally between flake and amorphous in 2015, but the proportion of flake is expected in increase by 2020.  Growth in flake demand will be driven by refractories.  More rapid growth of 10-15%py from the battery market is possible, but from a much lower base.  China may seek even more control in this changing industry and consolidate its flake industry. Roskill analysts in China are monitoring this situation on the ground.

ROW moves away from Chinese supply

China will continue to lead the way for international trade and pricing in graphite. In the long term, Chinese export prices are expected to rise because of the increasing cost of domestic production (as labour, environmental and overhead costs rise) and because of increasing Chinese control through consolidation.  Meanwhile, the quantity of graphite available for export will decrease as China ramps-up production and export of value added products.  These factors may gradually push consumers in the rest of the world to look for alternative sources of raw material elsewhere.

Synthetic graphite production rising

Synthetic graphite production is increasing for use in specialist applications.  The largest tonnages come from the graphite electrode manufacturers, with less than ten major producers worldwide. Barriers to entry in the synthetic graphite industry are high. The market for graphite electrodes in electric arc furnace steelmaking is suffering from the effects of a temporary price disparity between steel scrap and iron ore and this market is the main driver for synthetic graphite consumption. Other markets for synthetic graphite, including recarburisers and shapes, are also suffering and the impact this is having on synthetic prices is making synthetic graphite a more attractive alternative for new battery customers. An understanding of petroleum needle coke and synthetic graphite pricing is key to the evaluation of synthetic graphite’s prospects in lithium-ion battery anodes.