Though a non-metallic mineral graphite has properties that are similar to metals such as heat and electricity conductivity. Currently China, North America, and India form the largest graphite producers with over 80% of global production with Sri Lanka becoming a contender in the graphite producer market. As with any industry there are both graphite extraction challenges and graphite extraction opportunities.
The word graphite is derived from the Greek word ‘grephein’ which means to write or draw. Graphite has firmly established its importance in today’s work being practically invaluable to many industries. It is an allotrope of carbon with layers of carbon atoms, which slide over each other. When within ordinary atmospheric conditions graphite is stable. Owing to the electrons between the layers of the carbon atoms, it is a highly effective electrical conductor, which is why it is an essential component in lithium ion batteries.
Natural graphite is mined from open pits and underground mines. Sri Lanka has mines that are predominantly underground while Madagascar has mines that are mostly open pits. Also available is synthetic graphite which involves a production that can be costly. Different types of graphite are formed based on the different geological regions they are formed in. Sri Lanka has the distinction of being a natural source of high quality graphite.
The global demand for natural graphite continues to grow at a high pace with requirements depending on the quality of the graphite deposits, from grade, range, size of the graphite flakes and purity. Any presence of impurities obviously has a negative impact on the extraction and quality of the graphite. Pricing depends on the carbon content in the graphite, with grades over 80 per cent being preferred. Also the exploration must be economically sustainable.
Assessing resources – A potential site has to be assessed correctly involving field mapping, trenching, drilling, assaying of the graphite content, geological survey, mineralogical and metallurgical testing. All of this requires sufficient financing along with securing the necessary equipment.
Locations – Different locations yield different qualities of graphite with Sri Lanka offering some of the purest vein graphite locations. However, it is not always easy to find top quality graphite locations which may affect the economic sustainability of a potential site.
Regulations – Depending on the country there are numerous environmental regulations that need to be adhered to which can affect graphite production costs etc
Growing market – With the ever growing electric vehicle industry the demand for graphite will increase as it has firmly established its importance as a critical component in lithium ion batteries.
Increasing demand – Whether it is flake graphite or graphene, the demand for this wonder material is ever increasing because it keeps proving its versatility in many modern industries. Being resistant to decomposition by heat, being stronger than steel and resistant to all forms of high temperatures, and flexibility have all contributed to graphite being in continuous high demand.
Source for graphene – Graphite also plays a critical role as the source for graphene which is an ultra-thin super strong lightweight material. It is added to concrete, paint coatings, fiberglass, plastic, solar panels and wind turbines to name a few, to make them lighter, stronger and faster.
It is believed that it will have a great role to play in revolutionising industries such as energy generation, batteries, electricity and conductivity.
It is predicted that graphite will have an increasingly huge role to play in the renewables future as the World Bank forecasts that low-carbon energy technologies will require massive quantities of graphite per year by 2050. Graphite supply chains will be pivotal in providing sufficient graphite to the world.