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24/06/2024
Mining News

‘Graphite is the next lithium’

Renascor Resources, International Graphite and Quantum Graphite are three ASX-listed companies driving the emerging graphite industry in Australia. We take a closer look at their attributes.

One of the key raw materials in the green energy transition is graphite, but while Australia is a key producer of other battery metals such as lithium, nickel and manganese, there are no active Australian graphite mining operations.

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Graphite is used as an input for anodes – one of two electrodes that make up a lithium-ion battery, with cathodes – made up of metals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt – the other electrode.

According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, demand for anodes grew by 46 per cent in 2022, while supply of flake graphite – the most geologically common form of natural graphite – enjoyed 14 per cent growth last year.

This created a supply–demand imbalance, with Benchmark observing a 25 per cent rise in the price for -100 mesh flake graphite.

The lithium-ion battery anode market also became flake graphite’s biggest end user in 2022, running ahead of traditional applications in foundry and refractory industries.

And the good news doesn’t stop there, with more incentives emerging for future graphite producers. “Rising prices on strong anode demand are expected to incentivise new supply in 2023, where four new mines are anticipated to join the flake graphite market,” Benchmark senior analyst George Miller said.

“Alongside expansions at current mines in both China and Africa, supply is set to grow by around 15 per cent.” Miller said the -100 mesh graphite market, the preferred mesh size for anode manufacturing, is set to experience a deficit in 2023, which might see advancements in the types of anode feedstock.

“This might include milling of larger mesh sizes to suit the battery market or the use of different mesh sizes to stymie a supply deficit,” he said. “Sustaining a raw material shortage in the natural graphite anode value chain risks curtailing natural graphite anode market share.”

Several Australian companies are looking to ignite the local graphite industry. Some are not only focused on producing raw materials, but also developing a downstream offering as well. Australian Resources & Investment profiles three of those companies.

Renascor Resources

With a market capitalisation of more than $500 million, Renascor Resources is the highest profile Australian-focused graphite company on the ASX. This is due to the significance of its vertically integrated Siviour battery anode material (BAM) project in South Australia, which comprises a proposed mine and concentrator near Arno Bay on the Eyre Peninsula and a planned downstream purified spherical graphite (PSG) facility in Port Adelaide.

The Siviour mine area is massive, holding the world’s second largest proven graphite reserve and the largest graphite reserve outside of Africa. This could support a mining operation for 40 years.

Siviour received Program for Environment Protection and Rehabilitation (PEPR) approval in November 2022 – the second step in a two-step assessment process from the South Australian Government.

The PEPR approval enables Renascor to process up to 1.65 million tonnes of ore per annum, allowing the production of 150,000 tonnes of graphite concentrates per annum.

Renascor has the backing of the Australian Government through a $185 million loan facility, while the company was also successful in raising $70 million through an institutional placement in December 2022. This was priced at $0.275 per share. Renascor managing director David Christensen said upstream development would be the company’s initial focus, as that’s where he sees market demand.

“The gap in (graphite) material right now is really on the upstream and that’s largely because the customer base has grown significantly on the anode side and on the midstream processing side to feed battery companies, but the mines haven’t caught up,” he told Australian Resources & Investment.

Once flake graphite concentrates are produced from Renascor’s Siviour open-pit mine and processing plant on the Eyre Peninsula, further processing at the Port Adelaide facility would deliver a midstream PSG product to support battery anode manufacturing. Christensen provided further analysis of current graphite dynamics.

“If we see where we are with graphite right now, China produces two thirds of the world’s graphite but processes 100 per cent of the graphite that goes into anodes and then produces about 90 per cent of the anodes,” Christensen said.

“And they’ve really built up their processing capacity, both on the midstream … and on the anode side, and for that matter on the battery and the EV (electric vehicle) side as well.

“There may be even overcapacity there, but there’s undercapacity certainly in China on the flake graphite, so China has now become a net importer of flake graphite, and that’s really what’s causing the increase in the price. The reason they’re a net importer is because they need to feed the lithium-ion battery sector.”

Given its bright future as a battery anode material, Christensen compared graphite’s prospects to another battery metal key to the EV sector.

“What we tell people is graphite is the next lithium, and the more people that figure it out the better because I think we’re going to see not just our prices, but a number of prices go up relatively quickly fuelled from the supply gap,” he said. “So it’s a great opportunity and I think there’s a lot of ASX companies who look like they have some pretty exciting resources.”

International Graphite

Founded in 2018, ASX-listed International Graphite was built on the premise that the graphite industry would need more downstream processing capacity outside of China as the demand for battery anode materials increased.

The company is developing a mine-to-market business model, whereby raw materials would be mined from the Springdale graphite project in WA and fed into a downstream processing plant in the emerging renewable energy hub of Collie.

International Graphite successfully commissioned its micronising facility in September 2022, which the company believes is the most advanced known pilot-scale graphite micronising and spheroidising plant to be installed and operated in Australia. Micronising is the critical first step in the downstream processing of battery anode materials.

“What micronising does is essentially takes a fine concentrate, which might be 100–150 microns in size, somewhere in that order, and essentially grinds it down to a 20-micron size,” International Graphite managing director and chief executive officer Andrew Worland told Australian Resources & Investment.

“Generally speaking, somewhere in the vicinity of 20 microns is what’s needed to progress a micronised graphite product through the battery anode process. You then spheroidise the micronised graphite and purify it, which involves taking a concentrate grade, let’s say 95 per cent, up to battery grade of 99.95 per cent.

“The final step is coating, and then you have a high-value product which is available for battery manufacturers.” International Graphite’s Collie facility will also act as a centre for research and development (R&D) to explore the possibility of producing a finished battery anode material product.

The company acquired the Springdale project from Comet Resources in April 2022, with Comet seeing the value in International Graphite’s downstream potential. This was also reflective of broader investor sentiment.

“Where the industry was moving to more broadly from an investor perspective, was the value of a company was not being reflected in the mining assets but being reflected in the extent to which companies had explored downstream processing of their own materials,” Worland said.

“So Comet formed the view that merging the asset (Springdale) with our downstream processing IP (intellectual property) would yield a very nice consolidated business entity that was all held in Western Australia and offered the benefits of ESG (environmental, social and governance) to the global marketplace. That was the basis of listing in April 2022.”

International Graphite commenced trading on the ASX following a $10 million initial public offering (IPO), and within a month the company had unveiled a larger graphite R&D facility in Collie and announced a new memorandum of understanding (MoU) with ZEN Energy to explore renewable energy options for its downstream facilities.

Drilling saw International Graphite identify several high-grade discoveries at Springdale throughout 2022, including Springdale Central and Springdale South.

In October 2022, the company finalised a $2 million financial assistance agreement with the WA Government to support the development of its Collie downstream facilities. Worland said International Graphite could potentially commence importing concentrate before its Springdale project comes online.

“We can get that (our micronising plant) started on imported concentrates, and it may be, in time, a facility that we use to divert some Springdale material to as well,” he said.

“We’ll use that micronising facility to develop a customer base and generate cash flow into the company in 2024, before the feasibility study for Springdale and the feasibility studies for the battery anode material plant in Collie have been developed and completed.”

International Graphite’s strategy doesn’t stop there, with the company taking a holistic view at its development to find the best pathway forward.

“One of the challenges that all development-stage resource companies have in looking to get downstream is the timing to market,” Worland said. “This is certainly the case within the graphite industry.

“It takes a lot of integration of facilities and of course there’s a qualification process which is reasonably unique to graphite from a battery anode perspective that all companies need to go through. This does delay your market entry point.

“What we think is a very nice way to bridge that market entry is through establishing this micronising facility, which will be profitable very quickly. This will generate cash flow for the business that will help develop the feasibility work that we need to complete for Springdale and Collie.

“Just as important as cash flow is the market intelligence in customer networking. It’s the experience in sales and logistics that is something that doesn’t sit within any development-stage companies at this point in time. It’s a skill set that we’ll have through operations that others won’t.”

Quantum Graphite

The Uley mine in South Australia was the sole Australian graphite producer when it was up and running between 2014–15. Uley was placed on care and maintenance in December 2015 by Valence Industries, before the company was rebranded as Quantum Graphite in July 2017.

Quantum Graphite is advancing Uley to a restart – as Uley 2 – where it aims to produce 55,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) of flake graphite from its processing plant. This would be generated from 500,000tpa of feed. The expected mine life is 12 years.

The company has been undertaking significant site works at Uley 2 before installation of the new processing plant commences, which involved remediation of the Uley legacy plant.

Recent achievements for Quantum Graphite include the renewal of its Mikkira exploration licence until October 2027. Mikkira covers much of the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula and includes Uley 2, as well as other prospects such as Salt Lake, Homestead, Kacey and Fishery.

In November 2022, Quantum Graphite announced the successful completion of an energy storage project undertaken at INEMET in Freiburg, Germany. This involved testing and measuring the thermal performance of QSP’s flake graphite-based storage media under the same temperatures of the long-duration energy storage (LDES) battery developed by Sunlands Co.

QSP is a joint venture between Quantum Graphite and Sunlands Co. focused on the manufacture of flake graphite-based thermal storage media, with the flake to be exclusively sourced from Uley 2.

Thermal storage uses heat to store energy for later use, which offers a renewable source of energy and potentially reduces the reliance on fossil fuels for energy generation.

Quantum Graphite non-executive director David Trimboli said the findings from the INEMET test work program were significant.

“These results now settle the scope of QSP’s manufacturing of Uley media blocks,” he said. “The big news is the uniformity in the heat storage results. This enables QSP to achieve efficiencies of scale in the size and type of Uley media blocks regardless of the configurations required by Sunlands Co. for its various LDES cells.

“Operationally the capability to utilise all the Uley 2 flake product range hands QSP significant operational control over the procurement process (eg timing, general market conditions etcetera) of Uley 2 flake inventory.”

Quantum Graphite launched a takeover bid for graphite explorer Lincoln Minerals in August 2022, which was still active at the time this article was published online, with the takeover offer open until May 15.

In a letter to its shareholders in late February, Lincoln Minerals said Quantum Graphite’s offer remained unsatisfactory, while highlighting its own attributes where it is fully funded for 2023 exploration. Drilling at the Koppio graphite project and Kookaburra Gully graphite deposit was set to commence in March.

 

Source: Australian Resources & Investment

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