The natural and synthetic graphite industry is poised to follow lithium as excitement builds for potential growth from lithium-ion batteries. Despite their name, these batteries contain far more graphite than they do lithium. With global sales of new energy vehicles expected to rise by >10%py over the next decade and an unprecedented surge in stationary storage, the future of battery graphite looks positive. Major automotive/battery manufacturers with plans for mega-size factories remain tight-lipped on where they plan to source graphite, be that China or ROW/natural graphite (NG) or synthetic graphite (SG).
Meanwhile, the steel industry, which has been the historic driver of natural and synthetic graphite production and prices, continues to flounder. Steelmaking ultimately controls the major markets for SG in electrodes and NG in refractories. Graphite demand in these applications could grow by <1%py to 2026 as global steel production continues to slow with a weakening Chinese economy.
NG and SG compete for use in lithium-ion batteries. NG flake must undergo a high level of processing to achieve the same purity as SG. This involves high temperature/strong acids, plus grinding into spherical graphite. Less expensive, small/medium size flake is preferred as feedstock since up to half is lost as waste.
Currently, all production of spherical graphite takes place in China close to both resources and markets. The majority of battery, anode, and anode material manufacture has now moved to China. Production costs are also lower and there are less environmental restrictions on the use of reagents.
China accounts for >65% of all NG production from companies such as Aoyu Graphite, Qingdao Haida and Jixi Liumao. The major spherical graphite/anode material producer BTR New Energy Materials is now integrated into mining and the industry continues to consolidate. In January 2017, China removed its 20% tax on graphite exports. China also accounts for around 45% of SG production; the major producer is Fangda Carbon.
In the ROW, new NG producers have found it increasingly hard to obtain investment as the weak steel market has stifled prices. New producers in Sweden and Australia remain closed since 2015. The race is now on for ROW producers to prove competitive and consistent spherical graphite production for batteries. At the same time, SG prices have become more competitive with natural graphite.
In late 2016, the German producer SGL signed an agreement to sell its SG business to Showa Denko, a Japanese company that already manufactures SG-based anode material.