Source : Benchmark Mineral Intelligence – www.BenchmarkMinerals.com – October 2015
Problems with the consistency of flake graphite supply are hampering full capacity utilization of battery grade graphite in China.
Impurities in spherical graphite – a micronized and purified form of flake graphite – are preventing fringe producers from entering the market in a significant way, dragging down capacity utilization rates while leading volume producers like China’s BTR New Energy Materials continue to expand output and dominate the market.
Demand is at an all-time high for battery anode material, driven by a surge in full electric and hybrid vehicle production that has seen lithium-ion battery demand significantly increase.
China produced 110,000 battery powered vehicles between January and August alone, a trend that was at odds with falling combustion engine output. The country is on track to overtake the US and become the leading global producer of electric vehicles (EVs) this year.
With each EV containing between 0kg and 50kg of heavily processed graphite, output of the uncoated spherical graphite used in many of these vehicles is expected to top 50,000 tpa this year, 100% of which is produced in China.
Meanwhile, due to the inability of these producers to expand output quickly enough and in the sufficient volumes and qualities needed, synthetic graphite is still playing a significant role in the sector offering consumers a consistent supply at a higher cost.
Despite the cost advantage of natural spherical, it still only accounts for around 60% of the total anode market with synthetic products commanding up to a 40% market share, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence data.
In terms of spherical capacity utilization, however, Benchmark estimates that China is operating at just under 65% with higher cost fringe producers outside of Heilongjiang struggling to conduct business with larger buyers of the material.
Synthetic graphite is a more expensive anode material for battery consumers, but it offers the industry supply consistency that is lacking in some areas of the natural spherical sector.
The main reason for the inconsistency in natural spherical supply is how China’s flake graphite industry is structured.
The vast majority of the country’s (and the world’s) flake graphite is produced in Heilongjiang, a vast province with small to medium sized mining operations that feed into centralized processing plants such as those operated by BTR.
This means it is very difficult to determine the provenance of the feedstock material, a factor that hinders the ability of some producers to meet necessary quality specifications consistently.
Sources in Japan have explained to Benchmark how they are preparing for a significant increase in battery anode demand over the coming three years, and while from a cost and performance perspective buyers prefer natural spherical, confidence is lacking over whether the volume and consistency of supply will emerge to satisfy 100% of this intensifying demand.
This dynamic leaves room for new supply of spherical graphite coming into the market from outside of China, with Japanese consumers open to new deals at a cost that can compete with the present market.