Graphite, hidden worries behind the world’s No. 1 ranking
As an important allotrope of carbon, graphite is a transitional crystal between atomic crystals, metal crystals and molecular crystals, so it has many special properties. Graphite has many properties such as high temperature resistance, thermal shock resistance, electrical conductivity, lubricity, chemical stability, and plasticity. Therefore, it is widely used in many industrial fields such as new energy, metallurgy, machinery, chemistry, and electrical. Graphite not only has the common properties of non-metallic minerals but also has some properties of metals and organic plastics. Therefore, it is an indispensable strategic resource in the development of top military industry and modern industry.
Graphite is also China's dominant resource, and its output accounts for more than half of the world's production. However, China's graphite industry still faces the problem of "purchasing on behalf of others, low output and high input," and the domestic substitution of special graphite still has a long way to go.
1. The east wind of new energy vehicles has blown graphite
Graphite is an ancient and trendy material. Humans have long discovered that graphite has good painting properties. As early as the Eastern Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago, graphite has been used for painting and engraving seals. In the 18th century, graphite's excellent electrical conductivity and corrosion resistance began to be discovered and valued by humans, and graphite began to be widely used in electrodes. In 2004, two scientists from the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoslovov, obtained graphene by tearing apart graphite with tape. The two also won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Graphene can be directly prepared from graphite and has excellent optical, electrical, and mechanical properties. It has important application prospects in materials science, micro-nano processing, energy, biomedicine, and drug delivery. It is considered to be a material that can change the world. Revolutionary material.
In recent years, the booming development of new energy vehicles has greatly increased the demand for graphite anodes. In 2022, global anode material shipments will reach 1.556 million tons, a year-on-year increase of 71.9%. Among them, China's anode material shipments increased by 84.0% year-on-year to 1.433 million tons, and the year-on-year growth rate hit a record high. At the beginning of last year, the price of graphite also increased significantly. However, the good times did not last long. Compared with the rapid growth momentum in the previous two years, the growth of the lithium battery anode material industry has flattened in the first half of 2023. Coupled with the impact of downstream customers digesting inventory strategies, graphite prices have returned to the level before the increase. However, although graphite prices have declined to a certain extent, the downstream demand for graphite remains stable and continues to grow.
(Graphite electrode price (CNY/ton), data source: Ruida Futures Research Report)
2. The key to the supply of natural graphite
Graphite can be divided into natural graphite and artificial graphite. The two have similar structures and consistent physical and chemical properties, but their uses are quite different. Natural graphite comes from graphite mines and is a gift from nature. In contrast, artificial graphite is an artificial material obtained by carbonizing organic matter and then graphitizing it at high temperatures. Natural graphite has well-developed crystals, good lubricity and plasticity, good electrical conductivity, and is relatively cheap. It can be used in refractory materials, lubricant additives and other fields; artificial graphite has corrosion resistance, good thermal conductivity, and low permeability. and other characteristics, it has obvious advantages in the field of lithium battery anodes. The application fields of natural graphite and artificial graphite have a certain overlap, and they also compete with each other.
Natural graphite is an important strategic resource and my country's advantageous resource. According to USGS data, China's proven graphite reserves in 2022 will be approximately 52 million tons, accounting for 16% of the world's proven reserves, second only to Turkey and Brazil. In addition, there are still a large number of unexplored graphite deposits on the earth, and the actual amount of graphite deposits may be more than twice the proven reserves.
(Global graphite reserves in 2022, data source: USGS)
Compared with its reserves, China's graphite production is even more amazing.
In 2022, China will supply 65% of global production with 16% of global reserves, exceeding the rest of the world combined. Among them, about 24% is cryptocrystalline graphite, and 76% is flake graphite. In addition, China also processes most of the world's spherical graphite. In the field of natural graphite, China plays a pivotal role.
3. It is not guilty to mine but to sell it at a low price
With the development of technology and the continuous expansion of application fields, the strategic position of natural graphite has received more and more attention.
In 2010, the European Union listed graphite as one of 14 mineral resources in short supply; in 2013, the United States listed graphite as one of the strategic minerals that are difficult to obtain; in 2016, my country included crystalline graphite in the strategic mineral catalog. Many people are also aware of China’s asymmetric position in graphite storage and production. On the one hand, China's graphite reserves are only the third in the world, but its output accounts for more than half of the world's. On the other hand, many developed countries also have rich graphite deposits, but these countries choose to "cover up" and not produce.
However, some argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with graphite mining. First of all, China's graphite reserves are indeed abundant enough. Even based on the current known reserves and mining volumes, they are enough for 60 years. At the same time, it is believed that new mineral deposits will continue to be discovered in the future; secondly, although there are mutual differences between natural graphite and artificial graphite, Comparative advantages, most fields can be substituted for each other. thirdly, global natural graphite reserves are abundant and widely distributed, basically available on all continents, and it is unlikely to be "stuck" by a few countries.
In comparison, the "low sale" of graphite is even more unacceptable. The lowest export declaration price of primary graphite products is less than 3,000 yuan per ton. In comparison, the customs declaration price for the import of deeply processed high-end special graphite reaches about 100,000 US dollars (700,000 yuan) per ton. The situation of abundant low-end and insufficient high-end also exists in the graphite industry.
China's graphite beneficiation and processing technology is single, a large amount of fine flake graphite is wasted, and the situation of rich mining and abandonment of poor people is serious;
Except for a few regions with relatively complete industrial chains, such as Heilongjiang and Shandong, other graphite producing areas are mostly sold as raw ore with very low added value. Companies from other countries can obtain several times or even dozens of times profits after importing and further processing;
Many small and medium-sized enterprises only care about immediate profits, dig indiscriminately, and use a large amount of auxiliary materials such as acid, alkali, coal, etc., resulting in a large amount of pollution.
(Global Graphite Mineral Map, Source: USG)
Some people believe that graphite is China's dominant resource, and there is nothing wrong with mining and exporting it to earn foreign exchange. However, graphite production must be managed from the perspective of strategic resources, scientific innovation and technological progress must be strengthened, and sustainable development must be the focus.
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