Graphite and diamonds are the only two naturally formed polymers of carbon. Graphite is essentially a two dimensional, planar crystal structure whereas diamonds are a three dimensional structure. Graphite is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity and has the highest natural strength and stiffness of any material. It maintains its strength and stability to temperatures in excess of 3,600°C and is very resistant to chemical attack. At the same time it is one of the lightest of all reinforcing agents and has high natural lubricity.
What is graphite used for?
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, thermal management in consumer electronics, lubricants, fire retardants, and reinforcements in plastics.
The market for graphite is approximately one million tonnes per year (“Mtpy”) of which 60% is flake and 40% is amorphous. Amorphous graphite is a low value, low growth product. Only flake graphite which can be economically rounded and upgraded to 99.95% purity is suitable for making Li ion batteries. The graphite market is is far larger than the markets for magnesium, molybdenum cobalt, tungsten, lithium and rare earths combined.
Industrial demand for flake graphite was growing at about 5 per cent per annum up until 2012 due to the ongoing industrialization of China, India and other emerging economies. Demand for amorphous graphite is declining. Since then flake demand has levelled off or declined, largely due to the slowdown in China and a lack of growth elsewhere in the world. The “blue sky” for the graphite industry is the incremental demand being created by a number of green initiatives including Li ion batteries, fuel cells, flow batteries and nuclear energy. Many of these applications have the potential to consume more graphite that all current uses combined.
In the last five or six years for example, lithium ion batteries have gone from a small part of the graphite market to where they now account for about a third of demand. The lithium ion battery industry continues to grow at over 20% per year even with the slow adoption of EVs.