Graphite: Out With the Old, In With the New

Jan 11, 2016, 03:00 ET from Roskill Information Services

LONDON, January 11, 2016 /PRNewswire/ --

For at least two decades, the graphite industry has been led by growth in Chinese steel because of its use as a key raw material in electrodes and refractories. But 2015 was a year of major change as China crested the peak of its steel production and Chinese economic development began to contract. Graphite producers are turning to the emerging lithium-ion battery market with a new, intense focus. With Chinese electric vehicle (EV) uptake increasing rapidly and the USA constructing large capacity for lithium-ion batteries, will the future of graphite be secure? How will increasing competition between natural and synthetic graphite in lithium-ion batteries change the dynamics of the graphite industry to 2020?

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Traditional markets slowing 

Production of crude steel in China grew by 11.7%py between 2004 and 2014 but is set to fall for the first time in 2015, by 11Mt, and continue falling by -0.4%py to 2020. The major markets for graphite are based directly on steel production, including electrodes, refractories, recarburising and foundries.

Synthetic graphite is primarily manufactured as electrodes for electric arc furnaces (EAFs). Low iron ore prices in recent years have led to EAF production becoming less economical than other production methods. EAF steel production fell by -6% in 2014 and fell again in 2015. Global demand for refractories, the largest market for natural graphite, fell every year between 2011 and 2015 and will continue to fall to 2020, although growth in graphite-containing refractories will see slightly higher growth.

Lithium-ion batteries to save the day? 

In China, higher levels of EV subsidies have encouraged sales of these vehicles in recent years. By the end of 2015, cumulative Chinese sales of EVs and PEVs (plug-in electric vehicles) totalled >0.25M; over half of these sales occurred during 2015. As the new five-year plan of the Chinese government is released, we expect a further push away from traditional vehicles. Meanwhile, Tesla has created a large buzz as it builds its lithium-ion 'gigafactory' in Nevada, USA. The factory will provide batteries for use in up to 0.5M vehicles if and when it reaches full capacity.

If even a small amount of the proposed global growth in lithium-ion batteries comes online from EVs and stationary storage, it will have a large impact on demand for both synthetic and natural flake graphite. But consistently low oil prices are likely to limit the consumer uptake of alternative vehicles, at least in the short-term.

Natural and synthetic graphite go head to head 

Graphite is used in the anodes of lithium-ion batteries and production of anode material takes place almost entirely in China. Both natural and synthetic graphite compete for use with the choice coming down to performance and cost. Natural graphite needs to be purified and shaped to form spherical graphite in order to achieve a similar purity and the specifications provided by synthetic graphite. For many years, natural graphite offered a less expensive alternative but, with synthetic graphite prices beginning to fall in 2015, Roskill expects that these two graphite products will come into increasing competition in the coming years.

Chinese dominance wavering? 

China will continue to be the largest producer of both natural and synthetic graphite, accounting for around 67% and 45% of output respectively in 2015. But the Chinese natural graphite industry has undergone major consolidation in recent years and seen a series of closures. Almost all amorphous mining is now under the control of one state-owned enterprise, South Graphite, which has permanently closed around 90 of its 210 mines since it began to take ownership in 2010.  

Natural flake graphite consumers worldwide fear similar closures in the Chinese flake industry. During 2014 and 2015, a number of natural flake graphite mines were closed for failing to meet tightening environmental standards and some consolidation took place. The lithium-ion battery anode material manufacturer Shenzheng BTR New Energy Material, for example, is leading consolidation in the Jixi region of Heilongjiang province. In mid-2015, a new Government plan was announced to reduce the number of producers in Heilongjiang to just 20 by 2020.

China continues to shape the flake graphite industry through a system of trading taxes and rebates. These are aimed to encourage the domestic production of higher value, processed flake graphite products, such as spherical and expanded graphite, while at the same time discouraging the import of high value products and the export of graphite as a raw material.

A number of natural graphite projects are under development in the rest of the world to meet growth in lithium-ion battery demand but low prices have limited the development of flake graphite projects over the last three to four years. Although some of these flake projects have begun to operate, two new producers were forced to halt production in 2015.

Growth in both the synthetic graphite and the natural flake graphite industries to 2020 will depend on the amount of new demand from lithium-ion batteries, and other emerging markets, and on the timescale of this implementation. Demand for natural amorphous graphite will fall as alternative raw materials take an increasing market share. The way forward for graphite is both dynamic and complex.

Contact:
Dimpal Hirani
Tel: +44 (0)20-8417-0087
Email: Dimpal@Roskill.com


SOURCE Roskill Information Services