It may be its most well-known use, but Graphite today is at the core of more than just your pencil – it is at the core of 21st Century consumer technology. Just ask Elon Musk. The Tesla Motors CEO and futurist recently insinuated that the label “Lithium-Ion battery” may actually be a misnomer for the batteries that power our favorite gadgets and, increasingly, also electric vehicles:
“Our cells should be called Nickel-Graphite, because primarily the cathode is nickel and the anode side is graphite with silicon oxide… [there’s] a little bit of lithium in there, but it’s like the salt on the salad.”
The bottom line – Graphite is one of the most indispensable mineral resources.
Graphite’s rise to stardom prompted Washington Post reporter Peter Whoriskey to write a feature story about the Graphite supply chain and the problems associated with Graphite mining. According to Whoriskey, most of the Graphite contained in Lithium-Ion batteries used by Samsung, LG, GM, Toyota and other consumer companies can ultimately traced back to China, the world’s biggest Graphite producer. Writes Whoriskey:
“The companies making those products promote the bright futuristic possibilities of the “clean” technology. But virtually all such batteries use graphite, and its cheap production in China, often under lax environmental controls, produces old-fashioned industrial pollution.”
However, the fact that much of the world’s production of tech metals is concentrated in China has implications beyond the environment. With much of China’s mining industry consolidated in state-owned industries, resource policy is increasingly becoming an instrument of geopolitical warfare. As critical minerals expert David Abraham has pointed out elsewhere in the context of China’s ever-tightening grip on rare metals:
“If a goal of Beijing is to bolster its green companies by providing cheap, accessible materials to downstream manufacturing, owning a resource company provides a great way to do that. Could Beijing use its ownership stake to decide who can buy which resources and at what price? Yes.”
From a U.S. perspective, in the case of natural Graphite, this is indeed worrisome, as the United States, according to USGS, currently is 100% import-dependent for its domestic manufacturing needs, with the last U.S. Graphite producer ceasing production in 1991.
Once again, our deep Graphite dependency problem is largely home-grown.
While domestic natural Graphite reserves are considered small by international comparison, there are natural Graphite deposits under development in the U.S.. New technologies to turn natural Graphite into high-grade spherical Graphite, which is used by Electric Vehicle (EV) battery technology, are also readily available.
With stringent environmental standards in place and cleaner, new techniques that minimize the impact on the communities in which the deposit is developed at our disposal, harnessing our domestic Graphite resources would allow us significantly lessen our dependence on foreign supplies and also reduce China’s geopolitical leverage in the 21st Century resource wars.