Current graphite prices - US$/tonne
|XL flake||$1,800/t||(+50 mesh)|
|Large flake||$830/t||(+80 mesh)|
|Medium flake||$700/t||(+100 to -80 mesh)|
|Small flake||$550/t||(-100 mesh)|
After peaking in 2012, graphite prices experienced a long, slow decline due to the slowdown in the Chinese economy and a lack of growth in western economies. In the second half of 2017 they showed some life and increased 30 to 40 per cent due to an improving steel industry, environmental related production problems in China and continued strong demand growth from the lithium ion battery industry. Since then they have fallen back, largely due to the commissioning of a large new mine in Africa. Incremental production from this mine has been too much, too soon with respect to the growing EV market. The mine has been in operation for almost two years, has only operated at 50 or 60 per cent of design capacity on a consistant basis and has been cash flow negative from the start. As a result, its future is uncertain and the outcome will have a big effect on graphite prices going forward.
Lithium ion batteries are now approximately 25 per cent of graphite demand and continue to grow rapidly, albeit at a pace that is slower than many forecasts. However, China has substantial resources and excess production capacity for small flake graphite which is used to make battery anode material. This has kept prices low where they will remain until the future of the African mine is determined and the growth potential of EVs is realized. The future for large flake prices is much better as Chinese production is declining, the African operation does not produce much and demand is growing.
How is graphite priced?
Like uranium, there is a posted price for graphite which provides a guideline with respect to longer term trends but there are no spot or futures markets. Transactions are largely based on direct negotiations between the buyer and seller. Graphite prices are also a function of flake size and purity with large (+80 mesh) and particularly XL flake (+50 mesh) and 94% plus carbon varieties commanding premium pricing. Prices for +80 mesh large flake exceeded US$1,300/t in the late 80s but crashed to US$600-750t in the 90s as Chinese producers dumped product on the market. During this period there was essentially no exploration and no new mines were built in the west.
Graphite prices did not start to recover until 2005 and well surpassed US$1,300/t with large flake selling for up to $3,000/t in early 2012 with some shortages reported. Price appreciation was largely a function of the commodity super cycle and the industrialization of emerging economies as new, high growth applications such as Li ion batteries ("LiBs") had not yet had an impact on demand and consumption. Graphite prices subsequently again declined to the $750/t area for large flake graphite due to the strength in the US dollar, the slowdown in China and the lack of growth in Japan/Europe/US.
Lithium ion batteries were a very small part of the market seven or eight years ago but have been growing at over 20% annually due to the explosion in the use of cell phones, lap tops, cameras, power tools, etc. LiBs now account for approximately 25% of the graphite market and are expected to continue growing rapidly due to the increasing sales of electric and hybrid electric vehicles as well as grid storage solutions. These applications use much larger batteries, are much larger markets than the small device market and are still in their infancy. While China has surplus small flake production capacity, which is used to make the anode material for lithium ion batteries, the potential demand from LiB manufacturing capacity that is currently under construction is significantly higher than the extra capacity. This should lead to higher prices in the future.
Chinese production of large and XL flake graphite is declining as traditional mining areas in Shandong Province are depleted or shut down for environmental reasons. At the same time, industrial demand for the larger flake sizes is growing strongly. The steel industry is also recovering. As a result, the outlook for higher large and XL fake prices is more positive.