Posted by on May 1, 2019 9:00 am
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By Anthony Huston, President & CEO, Graphite One


For most people, you say graphite, and they think of No. 2 pencils.  But the reality is, you say graphite to a materials scientist, and they think of laptops and LEDs, smartphone and solar cells, Electric Vehicle batteries, drones and satellites, energy storage devices – even nuclear reactors:  Each of these and many more applications depend on graphite as a key means for the efficient transmission of power.  Graphite is key to the “electrification of everything.”


Unfortunately, it’s also one of the 14 metals and minerals on the U.S. Government Critical Minerals List for which the U.S. is presently 100% dependent on foreign supply.  It doesn’t take a materials science Ph.D to understand that if the U.S. doesn’t mine tech metals, we’re not going to be able to build and sustain the tech industries of the 21st Century. 


That’s the reason for a meeting taking place in Washington, D.C. today, convened by the UK analytical firm, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, bringing together key players in the EV battery world with a wide range of U.S. political officials.  After years of government studies raising alarm bells about America’s deep metals dependencies, the D.C. meeting is an opportunity to see how the public sector and private industry can pull in the same direction to encourage U.S. production of the metals and minerals essential to our high-tech future. 


Where does the world’s graphite come from right now?  As much as 70% is produced in China, which imports another 10% of the remaining global production, much of it from Africa.    


With zero U.S. production, there’s clearly room for new U.S. supply from companies like mine, developing the largest known American graphite resource, located in Alaska.  The need could hardly be greater.  Take the shift to electric vehicles.  In Europe, one country after another is setting deadlines for conversion from gas-powered vehicles to full electric:  The UK and France by 2040; Germany even earlier, by 2030; China’s transition date is yet to be determined, but a market that large will drive EV adoption.  According to Bloomberg research, “By 2040, 54% of new car sales and 33% of the total global car fleet will be electric.”  As for the materials needed for EV batteries, demand will skyrocket:  Li-Ion battery demand from EVs will grow from 21 gigawatt hours in 2016 to 1,300 gigawatts in 2030.  No, that’s not a typo:  from 21 today to 1300 in a decade and a half.  That’s a 6,000% increase.  


We’ve all heard about Tesla’s GigaFactory in Nevada, production hub for the company’s EV batteries.  Lithium analysts predict that EV demand will require the equivalent of 35 GigaFactories worldwide – by 2030. 


And despite the name, the average Lithium-Ion Battery requires eight times more graphite than lithium by volume.  (Elon Musk said of Tesla’s batteries: “Our cells should be called Nickel-Graphite… [there’s] a little bit of lithium in there, but it’s like the salt on the salad.”)


Will this new generation of novel uses for graphite – and not far over the horizon, the wonder material of graphite-derived graphene, 200 times stronger than steel but six times lighter — create new dependencies for the U.S. and its allies on China and unstable materials providers?  Will producing countries be content to sell us their material, or will they use raw materials access to entice manufacturers to relocate in supplier countries, sapping American manufacturing strength and taking American jobs with it?  


Big picture, the world is still in the infancy of the technology revolution.  The real question for the U.S. and its fellow industrial democracies is whether we will be buyers of our high-tech must-haves – or makers and sellers of them?  It’s clear enough we have the innovation and ingenuity to imagine and design them; will we have the advanced materials – graphite and dozens of others – to build them? 


Anthony Huston is President & CEO of Graphite One