Graphite demand is about to enter a period of rapid growth and price escalation. Consumption had previously been led by steel market applications and Chinese industrialisation but had slowed as Chinese steel output growth slowed during the period 2010 to 2017. However, rapid growth in demand for natural flake graphite and synthetic graphite in the lithium-ion battery industry is now forecast to underpin total graphite demand growth of 5–7%py between 2017 and 2027. By 2027, consumption of graphite in battery applications could be 5 to 10 times higher than the current level, dependent on the uptake of lithium-ion battery-based electric vehicles (EVs) and other lithium-ion battery applications.
Graphite has been identified as a strategic critical raw material worldwide for the batteries industry as excitement builds over potential growth from lithium-ion batteries. Anodes for these batteries contain far more graphite than they do lithium. Roskill forecasts electric and hybrid vehicles could account for 69% of all motor vehicle sales by 2027. With battery demand from these electric vehicles as well as an unprecedented surge in stationary storage, the future for battery graphite is exciting.
Meanwhile, the steel industry, which is the historic driver of graphite production and prices, has been through a number of dramatic changes since 2017, driven by environmental protection in China. Steelmaking drives the major markets for synthetic graphite in electrodes and the market for natural graphite in refractories. Consumers of Chinese graphite electrodes reported ten-fold price rises through late 2017 with producers updating prices weekly. Spot prices have been quoted as high as US$35,000/t, although most material is typically sold on a contract basis.
The synthetic graphite electrode industry was, traditionally, mature and slow growing. Prior to the H1 2017 price hike, electrode prices averaged less than US$1,900/t through 2015, 2016 and the first five months of 2017. Low prices during this period were a result of Chinese overcapacity and oversupply, exacerbated by rising synthetic graphite electrode output in China and India, combined with lower than expected growth in Asian electric arc furnace (EAF) steel production.
During the second half of 2017, all three of these trends were reversed by the Chinese government’s environmental inspections. An unexpected factor that also affected the balance of the synthetic graphite market supply/demand situation in 2017 was that some raw material needle coke started to be used directly in the anodes of lithium-ion batteries in direct competition with natural and synthetic graphite and thwarting efforts to increase synthetic graphite production at a time when electric arc furnace steel production in China required more synthetic graphite electrodes than ever before.
Roskill is the only consulting company in the world that has up to date information and price forecasts available for petroleum needle coke, synthetic graphite, natural graphite, synthetic graphite end-uses, lithium-ion batteries, refractories, electrodes and steel under one roof. The interactions between these industries are complex and our knowledge of trends in the steel and batteries demand informs our insight on the graphite supply/demand balance.