Natural Graphite: The Material for a Green Economy
As the world moves towards decarbonization, electric vehicles (EVs) and clean energy technologies offer a path towards a sustainable future. However, these technologies are mineral-intensive, and the minerals they use are becoming increasingly valuable.
Graphite is one such mineral.
As the anode material and single largest component of lithium-ion batteries, graphite has a key role in the clean energy transition. But there are two types of graphite: natural and synthetic. Which one is better for the green economy?
The above infographic from Northern Graphite outlines the need for graphite and weighs the pros and cons of the two types of graphite.
The Need for Graphite
Graphite has six key properties that make it essential for EVs and other clean energy technologies.
- High electrical conductivity
- High thermal conductivity
- Relatively low cost
- High energy density
- Long cycle life
- High temperature resistance
A single EV contains 66.3kg of graphite, according to the IEA. With more EVs on the road, the world will need more graphite. In fact, among critical battery metals like cobalt, nickel, and lithium, graphite is projected to see the largest increase in demand through 2029.
Batteries can use both types of graphite as anode materials. As of 2020, synthetic graphite dominated the anode market with 58% of market share. However, this could change over the next decade. By 2030, natural graphite is expected to see a 1437% increase in anode demand, compared to a 705% increase for synthetic graphite.
Why is the demand for natural graphite rising at a faster rate?
Natural Graphite vs Synthetic Graphite
The methods of production make the key distinction between the two types of graphite. Natural graphite occurs naturally in mineral deposits and miners extract it from the ground through open-pit and underground mining. On the contrary, manufacturers make synthetic graphite by high-temperature treatment of carbon materials like petroleum coke and coal tar.
Producing graphite from mineral deposits results in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the conventional mining process. However, the heat treatment of synthetic graphite is an energy-intensive process that releases harmful emissions.
According to one study, the manufacturing of synthetic graphite produces roughly 4.9kg of CO2 per kg of graphite. That’s roughly three times the amount of CO2 emissions that come from producing 1kg of natural graphite.
Additionally, natural graphite is also cheaper to produce than synthetic graphite. According to research from the Öko-Institut in Germany, anode material made from natural graphite is priced between $4 and $8 per kg, while synthetic graphite-based anode material costs $12-$13 per kg.
The Anode Material for a Green Economy
Critical minerals like graphite are becoming increasingly important in the transition to clean energy. However, managing the environmental impact and efficiency of producing these raw materials is just as important.
With a lower environmental footprint and lower production costs, natural graphite is the anode material for a greener future. As the energy transition continues, new graphite mines could play a key role in meeting graphite’s rapidly growing demand.
The World’s Largest Nickel Mining Companies
Nickel has emerged as an important battery metal, and these ten nickel mining companies are producing the nickel needed for EV batteries.
The World’s Top 10 Nickel Mining Companies
As the world transitions towards electric vehicles and cleaner energy sources, nickel has emerged as an essential metal for this green revolution.
Needed for the manufacturing of electric vehicles, wind turbines, and nuclear power plants, nickel is also primarily used to make stainless steel alloys more resistant to corrosion and extreme temperatures.
Using data from Mining Intelligence, this graphic shows the top 10 companies by nickel production along with their market cap.
The Biggest Nickel Miners by Production in 2020
Nickel has long been an important mineral for batteries, plating, and steelmaking, but it was only recently added to the USGS’s proposed critical minerals list.
As countries and industries realize the importance of nickel for the development of sustainable technologies, nickel mining companies will be at the forefront of supplying the world with the nickel it needs.
The 850 kt of nickel mined by the top 10 nickel mining companies is worth around $17.3B, with both production and price expected to grow alongside nickel demand.
|Anglo American||$50B||44.0 kt|
Source: Miningintelligence.com, Yahoo Finance
Nickel and palladium miner and smelter Nornickel leads the list with 236 kt of nickel produced in 2020, the majority coming from its Norilsk division of flagship assets in Russia.
With 46% of Nornickel’s energy mix sourced from renewable power, the company is pushing the development of carbon neutral nickel, starting with reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 60,000-70,000 tons in 2022.
Vale follows closely behind in production and in its carbon footprint goals. The Brazil-based company’s Long Harbour processing plant in Newfoundland and Labrador produces nickel with a carbon footprint about a third of the industry average–4.4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per tonne of nickel compared to Nickel Institute’s average of 13 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
With the top two companies producing more than half of the nickel produced by the top 10 miners, their efforts in decarbonization will pave the way for the nickel mining industry.
The Need for Nickel in the Energy Transition
Alongside the decarbonization of the nickel mining process, nickel itself powers many of the technologies crucial to the energy transition. Vehicle electrification is highly dependent on nickel, with a single electric car requiring more than 87 pounds of nickel, making up almost 1/5th of all the metals required.
With a history of being used in nickel cadmium and nickel metal hydride batteries, nickel is now being increasingly used in lithium-ion batteries for its greater energy density and lower cost compared to cobalt. Alongside the increase in usage, not all nickel is suitable for lithium-ion battery production, as batteries require the rarer form of the metal’s deposits known as nickel sulphides.
The more common form of the metal, nickel laterites, are still useful in forming the alloys that make up the frames and various gears of wind turbines.
Nickel is also essential to nuclear power plants, making up nearly a quarter of the metals needed per megawatt generated.
The Future of Nickel Mining and Processing
With nickel in such high demand for batteries and cleaner energy infrastructure, it’s no wonder that global nickel demand is expected to outweigh supply by 2024. The scarcity of high grade nickel sulphide deposits and the carbon intensity to mine them has also incentivized the exploration of new methods of harvesting the metal.
Agro-mining uses plants known as hyperaccumulators to absorb metals found in the soil through their roots, resulting in their leaves containing up to 4% nickel in dry weight. These plants are then harvested and incinerated, with their ash processed to recover the nickel “bio-ore”.
Along with providing us with metals like nickel, lead, and cobalt through a less energy intensive process, agro-mining also helps decontaminate polluted soil.
While new processes like agro-mining won’t replace traditional mining, they’ll be a helpful step forward in closing the future nickel supply gap while helping reduce the carbon footprint of the nickel processing industry.
Visualizing the Natural Graphite Supply Problem
In 2020, China produced 59% of natural graphite and over 80% of battery anode material. Here’s a look at the graphite supply problem.
Visualizing the Natural Graphite Supply Problem
Graphite is a critical mineral for lithium-ion batteries, and its battery demand is expected to grow ten-fold by 2030.
Meeting this increasing demand will require a higher supply of both natural graphite and its synthetic counterpart. However, graphite’s entire supply chain is heavily reliant on China, which makes it vulnerable to disruptions while creating environmental challenges.
This infographic from our sponsor Northern Graphite highlights China’s stronghold over the graphite supply chain and outlines the need for new natural graphite mines.
China’s Dominance in the Graphite Supply Chain
From mining natural graphite to manufacturing battery anodes, China dominates every stage of the graphite supply chain.
For example, in 2020, 59% of global natural graphite production came from China. Mozambique, the second-largest producer, churned out 120,000 tonnes—just one-fifth of Chinese production.
|Country||2020E production, tonnes||% of total|
|Rest of the World 🌎||73,000||6.6%|
China’s massive output makes the other top nine countries look substantially smaller in terms of natural graphite production. Moreover, China also dominates the manufacturing of synthetic graphite and the conversion of graphite into anode material for batteries.
In 2018, China produced nearly 80% of all synthetic graphite, and in 2019, it was responsible for 86% of all battery anode material production. This dependence on graphite supply from China puts the supply chain at risk of political disruptions and makes it unsustainable for the long term.
Unsustainable Production: Natural Graphite vs Synthetic Graphite
The carbon footprint of manufacturing partly depends on the source of energy used in production.
Coal dominates China’s energy mix with a 58% share, followed by petroleum and other liquids. This increases the carbon footprint of all production and especially that of synthetic graphite, which involves energy-intensive heat treatment of petroleum coke.
|Energy source||Type||% of China's energy consumption (2019)|
|Petroleum and other liquids||Fossil fuel||20%|
|Natural gas||Fossil fuel||8%|
Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding.
One study found that producing one kg of synthetic graphite releases 4.9kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, in addition to smaller amounts of sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter. While the carbon footprint of natural graphite is substantially smaller, it’s likely that China’s dependence on coal contributes to emissions from production.
Furthermore, concentrated production in China means that all this graphite travels long distances before reaching Western markets like the United States. These extensive shipping distances further exacerbate the risk of disruptions in the graphite supply chain.
The Need for New Sources
As the demand for graphite increases, developing a resilient graphite supply chain is crucial to the European Union and the U.S., both of which have declared graphite a critical mineral.
New graphite mines outside China will be key to meeting graphite’s rising demand and combating a potential supply deficit.
Northern Graphite is positioned to deliver natural graphite in a secure, sustainable, and transparent manner for the green economy.
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