Battery makers hunt for graphite ahead of China controls

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South Korean companies are rushing to buy more graphite from China before export controls on electric vehicle battery ingredient take effect in December.

LG Energy Solution Ltd. said on an earnings call on Wednesday that it will try and buy more graphite as soon as possible prior to the measures kicking in. Posco Future M Co., a battery-electrode maker, is also making efforts to maintain “the proper levels of stockpiles” before the Dec. 1 deadline, it said in an emailed response to questions.

China’s Ministry of Commerce said last Friday that it will place some types of graphite under export controls in order to safeguard national security. While the measures don’t necessarily mean shipments will be banned, the announcement unnerved EV makers given the country accounts for about 60% of world’s natural graphite production capacity, and 90% for the synthetic variety.

The Chinese controls on graphite come amid increased competition between Beijing and Washington for materials critical to the energy transition and high-tech sectors, and happened just days after the White House stepped up efforts to keep advanced chips out of China. In August, Beijing restricted exports of gallium and germanium — crucial to the semiconductor and telecommunications industries — before resuming some volumes the following month.

Gallium and germanium have jumped 20% to 30% since the restrictions, and it’s likely graphite prices could increase by a similar amount, said Steve Man, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Exports that comply with requirements will be approved, said Shu Jueting, spokeswoman at the Ministry of Commerce, during a press briefing on Thursday, adding that China is dedicated to ensuring the security and stability of global supply chains. “It’s not targeted at any specific country, region, or sector.”

South Korean battery manufacturers are heavily reliant on graphite imports. The country’s trade ministry said Monday it’s looking to African countries — including Mozambique and Tanzania — to address potential shortfalls of the material. The ministry said it will also seek to bring forward the start of of a domestic synthetic graphite factory scheduled to open next year.

Both LG Energy and Posco Future M said they didn’t regard China’s move as an export ban, but rather a new process for approvals. Posco Future M said it has enough graphite stockpiles to last 1.5 months, and the measure will not impact production, adding that it’s seeking to diversify supply by investing in mining rights in Tanzania.

“We see the halting of ex-China battery production as improbable, but assuming the status quo remains, natural graphite products will see increased administrative barriers,” said Matthew Langsford, a portfolio manager at Terra Capital, which holds stocks of graphite producers.

Graphite is an essential ingredient in EV battery anodes, a terminal inside a rechargeable cell. Battery makers can either use natural graphite extracted from mines to make anodes, or a synthetic material that’s typically more expensive but lasts longer, charges faster and improves safety.

Some anode manufacturers outside China may face short-term shortages and not be able to deliver to cell manufacturers in time, but there’s unlikely to be delays in cell manufacturing and packaging for the time being, research firm Sinolytics said in a note.

Australian graphite miner Syrah Resources Ltd., which has a graphite mine in Mozambique and an anode material facility in the US, said there were likely to be more inventory purchases by non-Chinese buyers of the material. Uncertainty regarding the impact of the Chinese restrictions is expected to continue into 2024, it said in a stock exchange filing.

(By Annie Lee and Heejin Kim)


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