Graphite moving towards its time in the sun

8th February 2019
Resources Rising Stars

Graphite is one of the lesser talked about battery minerals, with the light often shining on copper, nickel, lithium and cobalt instead but 2019 could be the year when there is a refocus on graphite, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence’s Andy Leyland (reports MiningNews).

He spoke to the Energy Minerals Investor Hub about a potential graphite prices, increasing supply and demand and the likelihood of battery makers locking in offtake contracts going forward in the face of a potential shortage.

Energy Minerals Investor Hub: Graphite prices went up last month after Japan's Tokai Carbon raised electrode contract prices for the first half of 2019 - what are your thoughts on the graphite market and prices going forward?

Andy Leyland: Higher electrode prices are a sign needle coke markets are tightening again on stronger demand, primarily from electric arc furnace steelmaking.

These synthetic grades of carbon, derived from petroleum coke, can tighten quite suddenly as supply from the oil refining business can't quickly react to higher prices. This has led to a lot of volatility in these markets in the past.

Natural flake graphite mine production on the other hand can respond quicker to increased demand - although it's not suitable for all carbon applications, such as electrodes.

For natural graphite going into Li-ion batteries, flame retardants and refactories we've seen a relatively balanced supply and demand growth picture over the past year - which has led to stable price levels for non-processed material.

Going forward, what we're expecting to see is that natural flake graphite prices will probably trade in a relatively tight range, but there's some room for processed spherical graphite prices to come off after seeing 20-26% increases over 2018 depending on the grade.

EMIH: What would cause those prices to come off?

AL: Really it's just increasing supply, increased processing capacity which is being put into the market, we expect that we're going to have another strong year of both supply and demand growth, but that the supply for uncoated spherical graphite will slightly outpace demand.

EMIH: Do you expect graphite supply in increase in 2019 and if so, will it be enough to meet rising demand?

AL: We expect another probably 90,000 tonnes of demand on a natural flake graphite equivalent basis, and on the supply side we are expecting about 95,000-100,000 tonnes extra.

The vast majority of that is coming from Syrah Resources' Mozambique project. Really that's been the story of the last year, it will continue to be the story this year- they are the new entrant to the market, the elephant in the room, and how they ramp up their operation will be key to determining the prices and the market balance.

What we've seen so far is that they've been pretty responsible with releasing supply into the market. They've also signed a number of offtake contracts, which should take up a lot of that increased supply and not cause too much market disturbance.

The other key variable is if the Chinese government ease some of the environmental restrictions they have placed on the graphite mine sector there. This has seen China importing more African material over the course of 2018.


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