The Graphite Supply Problem

China produces 70 to 80% of the world’s graphite supply. Approximately 70% of Chinese production is fine or amorphous graphite while 30% is flake. China does produce some large flake graphite but the majority of its flake graphite production is very small in the +200 mesh range.

China was responsible for the large decline in graphite prices in the 90s as product was dumped on the market to earn foreign exchange. Much like rare earths, this essentially killed the industry in the west and we are now highly dependent on Chinese supply. It is unlikely the Chinese can do the same thing again. They already have too many US dollars but more importantly, their mines are deeper, older and higher cost and the phenomenal growth in their domestic steel industry has created large domestic demand which did not exist in the 90s.

The majority of Chinese graphite mines are small, many are seasonal and labor and environmental standards are poor. Easily mined surface oxide deposits are being depleted and mining is now moving into deeper and higher cost deposits. It is estimated that Chinese flake production declined by almost 30% in 2012 due to the closure of uneconomic mines.

China is pursuing an aggressive policy of modernizing and consolidating its mining industry and providing for more professional management of resources with better labor and environmental practices. Along with currency appreciation, this will also lead to increased costs while the elimination of marginal producers and illegal miners will also contribute to lower production.

China is very serious about these reforms as evidenced by the fact that in 2012 it invested $150 million to create Southern Graphite Ltd., a state owned amorphous graphite monopoly. The new company is consolidating 230 mines down to 20 which will reduce the country’s production capacity from 600,000tpa to 510,000tpa. Furthermore, in late 2013 the Chinese government closed 20% of its flake graphite production capacity for environmental reasons.

In order to protect its industry and encourage value added processing at home, China has instituted a 20% export duty on graphite, as well as a 17% VAT, and an export licensing system.

All these factors are creating serious supply concerns for the rest of the world. The small production base in the west is aging and no new mines have been built in over 20 years. Both the EU and the US have declared graphite a supply critical mineral.

Mining Weekly: Chinese Flake Graphite Consolidation Could Alter Global Supply Structure April 17, 2014

Demand

Over the 2004 to 2011 period flake graphite demand grew by an average of 7.5% per annum. Alternatively, amorphous graphite demand declined 5.2% per year. The increase in flake demand was almost entirely driven by traditional steel and automotive industries and the emergence of developing economies. This caused prices to rise from about $700/t in 2005 to almost $3,000/t in early 2012. The subsequent slowdown in the Chinese economy combined with a lack of growth in the US/Japan/Europe has caused weak demand and prices have fallen back approximately 50%. Prices are still higher than their previous lows and prices for large and extra large flake have held up better. Many uneconomic mines have closed or suspended operations which indicates that we are at the marginal cost of production which should limit further declines.

There is clause for optimism as the growth in developing countries is not over and sooner or later growth will return in Japan and the west. Furthermore, a number of new technologies have arrived and are now starting to have a meaningful impact on the market, specifically Lithium ion batteries (for EVs, grid storage and replacement of lead starter batteries), fuel cells, vanadium redox batteries and further in the future, pebble bed nuclear reactors. Graphite demand from li ion batteries for example, has grown from almost nothing six years ago to almost 130,000tpa and now represents 30% of the flake market. It continues to grow at 20%pa and electric vehicles are not yet a big factor. The fuel cell market is now a billion dollar a year industry and many products are now going mainstream.

Demand from these new technologies combined with serious supply problems in China create a very interesting supply/demand dynamic going forward.