EV sector drives massive graphite demand
Western Alaska deposit could feed graphite into supply chain Critical Minerals Alaska 2020 – Published October 29, 2020
Last updated 12/23/2020 at 4:30am
The rapidly accelerating expansion of the electric vehicle and renewable energy sectors is driving enormous new demand for graphite, a major ingredient in lithium-ion batteries.
The World Bank forecasts that low-carbon energy technologies, primarily lithium-ion batteries, will require 4.5 million metric tons of graphite per year by 2050, which is about a 500% increase over 2018 levels and a 318% increase over the total graphite produced in 2019.
"Graphite demand increases in both absolute and percentage terms since graphite is needed to build the anodes found in the most commonly deployed automotive, grid, and decentralized batteries," the World Bank penned in a 2020 report, "The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition."
According to "Mineral Commodity Summaries 2020," an annual report published by the United States Geological Survey, there are currently no graphite mines in the United States, a dearth that required American manufacturers to import 58,000 metric tons of this carboniferous battery mineral during 2019.
China produced roughly 64% of the world's mined graphite in 2018. The next closest graphite producers were Mozambique (10%), Brazil (9%), and Madagascar (4%).
When it comes to spherical graphite, a special form of the material used as the anode in lithium-ion batteries, China was the only commercial-scale producer in 2019.
Gigafactory 1, an enormous facility in Nevada that is producing lithium-ion batteries powering the cars coming off Tesla's North America assembly-lines, is going to need hefty supplies of spherical graphite.
Once complete, this 10-million-square-foot factory is going to need around 35,200 tons of spherical graphite per year and the iconic electric automaker has just broke ground on a much larger gigafactory in Texas.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has hinted the new gigafactory near Austin could be built out to the terawatt scale, which means it would have upwards of 30 times the battery making capacity of Gigafactory 1.
Tesla is also rapidly expanding it battery overseas manufacturing capacity with new gigafactories in China and Germany.
And Tesla is not the only automaker vying for graphite and other battery metals. With every major carmaker adding electrified models to their lineup, the number of EVs being built each year is expected to expand from about 2 million this year to more than 25 million by 2030 and 55 million by 2040.
And each of these facilities are going to need, preferably regional, supplies of graphite and the other lithium-ion battery materials.
With 5.7 million metric tons of quality graphite outlined so far, Graphite One Inc.'s Graphite Creek deposit in Northwest Alaska could provide a reliable domestic supply of graphite to North America's burgeoning lithium-ion battery sector.
Understanding that this project could be an important link at the beginning of the U.S. lithium-ion battery supply chain, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy nominated Graphite Creek as a as high-priority infrastructure project under Executive Order 13766, a directive by President Trump to strengthen the U.S. economy by expediting the permitting of infrastructure projects.
"Designating the Graphite Creek project as a high-priority infrastructure project will send a strong signal that the U.S. intends to end the days of our 100% import-dependency for this increasingly critical mineral," Dunleavy penned in his nomination letter.
Ideally suited for batteries
Graphite Creek already hosts a globally significant deposit that could feed anode material into the lithium-ion battery supply chain for decades. The deposit outlined by drilling so far, however, is but a small fraction of the thick lenses of graphite surfacing along a 11-mile-long stretch of the Kigluaik Mountains on Graphite One's property about 35 miles north of Nome, Alaska.
In addition to world-class size, the graphitic carbon at Graphite Creek has unique characteristics that make it ideally suited for batteries and other high-tech applications.
The anodes in lithium-ion batteries are packed full of graphite that has been rolled into potato-shaped spheres and coated in a hard carbon shell that protects the anode material. So, any graphite deposit that wants to supply the rapidly growing lithium-ion battery sector must have graphite that can be transformed into this semi-spherical shape – typically large flakes that can be rolled.
When testing Graphite Creek material, Graphite One was pleasantly surprised to find that much of the graphite in the Alaska deposit is naturally spherical and possessed other unique attributes.
The company coined the acronym STAX to describe the distinctive spheroidal, thin, aggregate, and expanded properties of the graphite in the Graphite Creek deposit – characteristics that may make the material well-suited for numerous high-tech, renewable energy and military applications.
Testing found that more than 74% of the STAX flake graphite could be turned into spherical graphite without milling.
This is a monumental achievement considering that only about 40% of the best-performing flake graphite found in any other known deposit can be converted to spherical graphite, even using high-end equipment.
The shape would be of little consequence if the material did not perform well in batteries and STAX graphite as the anode in lithium-ion cells demonstrated a first discharge capacity at or near the theoretical maximum for natural, uncoated spherical graphite.
Discharge capacity is a measure of a battery's energy storage capability once first charged.
Graphite One says this ability to reach and closely approach what is currently believed to be the discharge capacity limit, coupled with the capacity to consistently maintain high values on cycling demonstrates the high-performance potential of the STAX graphitic carbon.
"From the time we identified the unique mineralization of our STAX graphite, we've observed a number of potential performance advantages," said Graphite One Resources President and CEO Anthony Huston.
To further test the advantages STAX has to offer, Graphite One shipped roughly 12,000 pounds from surface sampling at Graphite Creek to a United States-based industrial partner for processing into advanced graphite materials.
Testing by this unnamed partner confirmed that spherical graphite made from STAX material performed well as a lithium-ion battery anode and maintained strong performance after 170 charge-discharge cycles, adding further confidence in the potential for STAX as an anode material.
More than batteries
In addition to a good candidate for a domestic source of lithium-ion battery anode material, the recent testing shows that the unique properties of STAX graphite is well suited for other high-tech, industrial, and defense applications.
To fully take advantage of all the attributes STAX has to offer, Graphite One has opted for a processing flow sheet that purifies the Graphite Creek concentrates in the beginning. While opposite of what is done at other graphite operations, this inverted purification flow sheet would allow the company to redirect all the material that is not ideal for rechargeable battery anode material toward other value-added applications.
Testing carried out by Graphite One's industrial partner found:
• Two non-spherical STAX products with grades topping 99.99% graphite have shown to work well as a conductivity enhancer when added to the cathodes of alkaline batteries.
• Thermally purified STAX graphite has been turned into an expandable flake product, which was subsequently formulated into fire retardant foams capable of extinguishing Class B – burning oil, gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel – fires.
• Purified versions of STAX material have also been converted into synthetic diamonds that could be used for metal working applications, such as pigments for lapping compounds and ultra-hard coatings on drilling, cutting, and grinding equipment.
The next stage of testing will involve doping large synthetic diamonds with elements to produce next-generation semiconductor materials that could replace silicon wafers in critical applications and high-temperature applications.
"All of the above examples of potential upsides coupled with Graphite One's smart design choices and selection of an environmentally responsible processing flow sheet further support the value of the Graphite Creek deposit and the upcoming PFS (prefeasibility study) that will be unveiled within the next few months," Huston said earlier this year.
Significant graphite source
The coming PFS will follow-up on a 2017 preliminary economic assessment that provided a first look at the engineering and economic parameters of a future mine at Graphite Creek.
This envisioned a roughly 2,800-metric-ton-per-day processing facility at Graphite Creek that would produce 60,000 metric tons of graphite per year.
At the time, the deposit hosted 10.32 million metric tons of indicated resource containing 744,000 metric tons of graphite; plus 71.24 million metric tons of inferred resource with another 4.97 million metric tons of the graphitic carbon.
A six-hole infill drill program carried out in 2018 has upgraded and expanded these resources.
The best hole of the program cut two layers of near-surface graphite – 5.8 meters of 8.06% graphite and 16.3 meters of 11.93% graphite.
Other intercepts from the 2018 drilling include:
• 25.3 meters of 7.76% graphite.
• 20.5 meters of 7.71% graphite.
• 8.5 meters of 10.81% graphite.
• 8.7 meters of 8.05% graphite.
"Graphite Creek continues to show potential to be a significant domestic source of critical materials for electric vehicle batteries, power storage and various other critical and strategic end uses," said Huston.
With this drilling, Graphite Creek now hosts 10.95 million metric tons of measured and indicated resources averaging 7.8% (850,534 metric tons) graphite; plus 91.89 million metric tons of inferred resource averaging 8% (7.34 million metric tons) graphite.
This new expanded and higher-grade resource will be incorporated in the coming PFS.
This higher level economic and engineering study will further investigate plans to ship concentrates from Graphite Creek to an advanced material processing facility that would refine them into both coated spherical graphite for lithium-ion batteries and purified graphite powders for other applications.
Graphite One would prefer to build this processing facility in Alaska but is also looking at locations in Washington, due to the lower cost power in the Pacific Northwest state.
Tapping AIDEA's expertise
To help with search for a viable Alaska locale to build the advanced graphite processing facility, Graphite entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.
Alaska candidates for the facility would need to have reasonably priced electricity and adequate supply; industrial zoned land; be close to tidewater and port facilities; and infrastructure that allows easy access for the workers needed to operate the facility.
In a 2018 report, AIDEA identified four Southcentral Alaska locations – Homer, Kenai, Port Mackenzie and Seward – that meet the criteria and "are very interested in discussing this project with Graphite One management."
The development authority said Alaska has advantages that could outweigh the higher power costs at these sites, compared to sending the concentrates to the Lower 48 for further refinement.
"While Outside locations may provide cheaper power costs, Alaska is a mining and industrial friendly state that supports the development of value-added activities, and has a regulatory regime that supports responsible development while being less costly than other potential Northwest locations," AIDEA penned in the preliminary report.
Producing a significant portion of the coated spherical graphite needed for America's growing lithium-ion battery sector from Alaska mined ore would make the Far North state a domestic hub for this increasingly important critical mineral.
"Tapping AIDEA's expertise in helping us assess potential refinery sites is the first step towards making Alaska a key player in the clean-tech energy sector," said Huston. "The AIDEA report confirms the considerable interest Alaska localities have in serving as a base for our advanced-material spherical graphite refinery."