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As Critical Mineral Dependencies Persist, Promising “Battery Criticals” Projects Provide Opportunity to Ensure that “the Supply Chain for America Begins in America” – A Look at Graphite

 For all the talk about reducing our over-reliance on foreign critical mineral resources against the backdrop of soaring demand, strained supply chains and increasing geopolitical tensions, last week’s release of the annual USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries report still paints a sobering picture.

While the number of metals and minerals for which the U.S. remains 100% import dependent may have dropped by two from 17 to 15, the number of materials for which we are more than 50% or more import dependent has actually gone up over last year.

When cross-referencing the U.S. Net Import Reliance chart with the 2022 Final list of Critical Minerals, the United States was 100% net import reliant for 12, and an additional 31 critical mineral commodities (including 14 lanthanides, which are listed under rare earths) had a net import reliance greater than 50% of apparent consumption.

Recent policy developments, such as the Biden Administration’s invoking of the Defense Production Act (DPA) for the five “battery criticals” — graphite, lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese –  as well as the rare earths, declared DPA priority materials during the Trump Adminstration, plus the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the energy provisions of which contained EV tax credits observers said would send important signals to investors and industry that the U.S. was serious about domestic supply chains, provide hope for a positive change.

But, after decades of dwindling domestic resource production and rising import reliance, no one ever said turning an aircraft carrier this size would be easy.  As Morgan D. Bazilian of the Colorado School of Mines and Gregory Brew from the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University argue in a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, while this general trend represents “welcome and overdue progress, (…) implementing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could be stymied in part by a material obstacle: the procurement of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper that are essential to clean energy systems,” which in their words have so far been “myopic.”

At the same time, as scholars at the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Center have pointed out“the Biden administration’s efforts to free up federal funds for domestic mining activities has highlighted the inherent conflict between accessing the minerals needed for climate action and the administration’s commitment to environmental and social justice.” 

Developments like the recent Biden administration halt on progress on the Ambler Road project in Alaska, which proponents say would unlock access to critical minerals and create new jobs, or the cancellation of the two mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota LLC which seeks to mine copper, nickel and other commodities near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, point to conflicting viewpoints between the President’s stated objectives and his Administration’s policy.

This week’s State of the Union Address to both chambers of Congress could have provided important impetus to strengthen critical mineral supply chains. However, while professing that his administration understood the importance of making sure that “the supply chain for America begins in America,” the President’s speech never once referenced the terms “critical minerals,” “mining,” or “processing.”  

That is in spite of the fact that there are promising developments underway – especially for the “battery criticals.”  Over the next few weeks ARPN will be looking at each of these materials, now deemed under President Biden’s DPA determination to be “essential to the national defense,” and the U.S.-based projects working to urgently needed new supply into production.

Let’s start with graphite, one of the materials for which USGS noted an ongoing 100% import dependence this year.

As the key raw material in the battery anode, graphite is the largest component of lithium-ion batteries by weight. In light of phenomenal demand growth from the EV battery sector and delays to new capacity as well as rising power costs, the graphite supply chain represents a significant and growing challenge for automakers looking to reduce the carbon footprint of the materials they use for their EVs.

However, that’s not for lack of known graphite resources.  As USGS noted in February 2022 in its updated U.S. Mineral Deposit Database, the Graphite Creek deposit near Nome, Alaska – being developed by Graphite One, Inc. — is America’s largest graphite deposit.

Graphite One recently announced it is cooperating with two U.S. national laboratories under the Department of Energy umbrella in an effort to establish a mine-to-manufacturing all-American graphite supply chain.

In January, the company announced that it had entered into an agreement to have active anode material and other materials sourced from Graphite Creek tested to verify conformity to EV battery specifications by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

Aside from these public private partnerships according to Metal Tech News’s Shane Lasley, at least three automakers to date have also taken notice and are currently testing Graphite One material for use in their EV batteries.

In keeping with the new generation of miners looking to harness the materials science revolution to responsibly green our energy future [see ARPN’s post series on mining companies’ sustainability initiatives here], the company is also collaborating with Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to explore the lab’s award-winning green extraction methods to recover materials other than graphite from Graphite Creek – providing, in Lasley’s words, an opportunity to “provide an ancillary income stream for Graphite One while maximizing the Alaska deposit’s potential to supply minerals critical to the U.S” or – to use the President’s State of the Union verbiage — an opportunity to make sure that “the supply chain for America begins in America.”

As ARPN recently pointed out,

If U.S. Government efforts to develop an American-based EV and lithium-ion battery supply chain have any hope of succeeding, looking for ways to help projects like Graphite Creek down the path to production will be, in a word…. Critical.”