21st century Clean Mineral
Traditional demand for graphite is largely tied to the steel industry where it is used as a liner for ladles and crucibles, as a component in bricks which line furnaces (“refractories”), and as an agent to increase the carbon content of steel. In the automotive industry it is used in brake linings, gaskets and clutch materials. Graphite also has a myriad of other uses in batteries, lubricants, fire retardants, and reinforcements in plastics.
Industrial demand for graphite has been growing at about 5 per cent per annum for most of this decade due to the ongoing industrialization on China, India and other emerging economies. However, the “blue sky” for the graphite industry is the incremental demand that will be created by a number of green initiatives including Li ion batteries, fuel cells, solar energy andsemi conductors. Many of these applications have the potential to consume more graphite that all current uses combined.
Global consumption of natural graphite is estimated at 1.1 Mt in 2010. Natural graphite comes in several forms: Flake, amorphous and lump. Only flake and synthetic graphite (made through an expensive process from petroleum coke) can be used in lithium-ion batteries that are crucial to the consumer-electronics industry. Demand for lithium-ion batteries will increase rapidly as battery-power (electricity) supplements gasoline and diesel-fueled internal-combustion engines in vehicles as “green energy” expands. Flake graphite will be very much in demand to produce the hundreds of millions of lithium-ion batteries required for these automobiles (Source: Technology Metals Research, LLC. January 2011).
China’s Dominance of the Graphite Industry
China produces over 70 per of the world’s graphite supply. Approximately 70% of Chinese production is lower value fine or amorphous graphite while 30% is flake.
China was responsible for the large decline in graphite prices in the 90s as a substantial amount of product was dumped on the market. This is unlikely to be repeated due to the phenomenal growth in the Chinese domestic steel industry which internally consumes a great deal of graphite.
China also has a strategy of keeping value added processing in country. As a result, production and exports are expected to decline and graphite now shares the same supply concerns as the rare earth elements. Both the Eurporean Union and the USA have named graphite a supply critical mineral.
Graphite in Lithium Ion Batteries
Lithium ion batteries are smaller, lighter and more powerful than traditional batteries. They also have no memory effect and a very low rate of discharge when not in use. As a result, most portable consumer devices such as laptops, cell phones, MP3 players and digital cameras use Li ion batteries and they have now moved into power tools as well. While this market is growing rapidly, the batteries are small and the resultant demand for metal is relatively small. Graphite demand in Lithium ion batteries was estimated at 44,000 tonnes in 2008 or about 10 per cent of the flake market.
However, Li ion batteries are now being used in hybrid electric vehicles (“HEV”), plug in electric vehicles (“PEV”) and all electric vehicles (“EV”) where the batteries are large and the potential demand for graphite very significant. While this has created a great deal of excitement in the lithium industry, the investment community is only now beginning to focus on other materials used in Li ion batteries and by weight, graphite is the second largest component. In fact, there is 20 times more graphite than lithium, in a lithium ion battery.
Flake graphite is actually like a deck of cards, it consists of many flakes with weak bonds between them. If a graphite flake is delaminated to its lowest common denominator, you are left with a one atom thick, transparent, conductive sheet of carbon atoms arranged in hexagonal rings or a honeycomb pattern. That is Graphene. Two scientists at the University of Manchester won the Noble Prize in Physics in 2010 for isolating Graphene. Graphene is 200 times stronger and more flexible then structural steel, conducts heat 10 times faster than copper and can carry 1,000 times the density of electrical current of copper wire. This is a truly remarkable material with many exciting potential applications. (Source: BBC News. May 2011).
It is expected that graphene will be used in the evolution of LCD touch screen technology, the creation of super small transistors, super dense data storage, energy storage, and solar cells to name a few. The substance has been proven superior to silicon for integrated circuits and has the potential to make transistors that can operate at terahertz speeds. IBM has already developed a transistor using graphene that operates at more than twice the speed of silicon transistors of comparable size. Given that this design was a proof of concept design rather than a design for optimal commercial use, researchers believe they can make them faster still.
Graphene is also being touted as the future for outer space. While extremely thin it can wrap and anchor itself securely around ceramic grains during manufacturing and toughen silicon nitride ceramics by up to 200 percent. The growth of research and publications on graphene has been remarkable and according to a Georgia Tech professor there are currently nearly 200 companies including Intel and IBM involved in graphene research. In 2010 it was the subject of about 3,000 research papers. The European Union and South Korea have recently started $1.5 billion efforts to build industrial scale, next generation display materials using graphene.
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