It is somewhat ironic that the lithium-ion batteries that power the growing number of zero emissions electric vehicles traveling global highways are driving the need for carbon – graphitic carbon to be exact.
Despite lithium’s top billing, lithium-ion batteries require roughly eight times more graphite.
Graphite Creek in western Alaska hosts huge stores of graphitic carbon and Graphite One Inc., the company advancing this project, has initiated a pilot-scale program aimed at further demonstrating that this material is particularly well suited to fill the growing graphite demand being driven by batteries and the EVs they store power for.
As an initial step, Graphite One is shipping roughly 12,000 pounds of graphitic material from surface sampling at Graphite Creek to a United States-based industrial partner for processing into advanced graphite materials.
To preserve its competitive advantage, Graphite One is not revealing the name of its partner but said it is an established industry enterprise credited for work with the U.S. government, as well as the commercial graphite and carbon industry.
“This is a significant step towards our goal to establish our STAX flake graphite as the key raw material in the value-added, all-American supply chain from mine-to-value-added processing, and beyond that to batteries and other original equipment manufacturer applications,” said Graphite One CEO Anthony Huston.
What is STAX graphite?
STAX is an acronym coined by Graphite One to describe the distinctive spheroidal, thin, aggregate and expanded graphite in the Graphite Creek deposit – characteristics that may make the material a good fit for many of the high-tech and green energy sector applications that are driving the rapidly expanding graphite market.
Spherical graphite is of particular interest because it is the form used as the anode material in lithium-ion batteries.
Preliminary tests found that more than 74 percent of the STAX flake graphite could be turned into spherical graphite without milling.
This is a monumental achievement considering that only about 40 percent of the best-performing flake graphite found in any other known deposit can be converted to spherical graphite, even using high-end equipment.
The shape would be of little consequence if the material did not perform well in batteries, but initial testing of spheroidal graphite produced from STAX graphite has demonstrated the potential for exemplary performance.
Three coin cells, which are similar in shape and size to batteries used in watches, with STAX graphite as the anode demonstrated a first discharge capacity at or near 372 ampere hours per kilogram, the theoretical maximum for uncoated spherical graphite.
Discharge capacity is a measure of a battery’s energy storage capability once first charged.
The first-discharge capacity of the best-performing cell using STAX graphite equaled the theoretical maximum and most of the cells were within 1 percent. The largest deviation from the theoretical maximum was 3 percent.
Graphite One says this ability to reach and closely approach what is currently believed to be the discharge capacity limit, coupled with the capacity to consistently maintain high values on cycling demonstrates the high-performance potential of the STAX graphitic carbon.
Research and development to better understand and quantify the significant features of STAX graphite, as well as assess its performance in commercial equipment for establishing purchase specifications, is ongoing.
Refining Graphite Creek PFS
Graphite One’s yet-to-be-named partner will conduct primary and secondary processing of the bulk sample of graphitic carbon being shipped from Graphite Creek. This work is expected to include the production of batches of value-added products for market sampling in the energy storage and other high-margin market segments.
Results from this pilot-scale program will provide vital data and sample material for a pre-feasibility study (PFS) being carried out by Graphite One.
In addition to describing plans for a mine at Graphite Creek, the PFS is expected to include details of an advanced material processing facility that will further refine the graphitic carbon concentrates from the Northwest Alaska operation into the coated spherical graphite used in lithium-ion batteries and purified graphite powders that can be used for other applications.
This study is expected to build upon a 2017 preliminary economic assessment that outlines plans for a roughly 2,800-metric-ton-per-day operation at Graphite Creek that would produce 60,000 metric tons of graphite per year.
At the time, 10.32 million metric tons of indicated resource containing 744,000 metric tons of graphitic carbon; plus 71.24 million metric tons of inferred resource with another 4.97 million metric tons of the graphitic carbon had been delineated by drilling at Graphite Creek.
A six-hole infill drill program carried out in 2018 has upgraded and expanded these resources.
With this drilling, the deposit now hosts 10.95 million metric tons of measured and indicated resources averaging 7.8 percent (850,534 metric tons) graphitic carbon; plus 91.89 million metric tons of inferred resource averaging 8 percent (7.34 million metric tons) graphitic carbon.
“This increase in resources demonstrates the potential for a robust, high-grade U.S. graphite project,” said Huston.
It is also expected to form the basis on the mine detailed in the PFS.
Graphite One is still looking for the ideal location for the advanced processing facility that will upgrade the concentrates produced at Graphite Creek. Based on the level of mine production and other parameters of the PEA, this refinery would produce 41,850 metric tons of coated spherical graphite and 13,500 metric tons of purified graphite powders annually.
Ideally, the company hopes to find an Alaska locale with a port; reasonably priced electricity; industrial zoned land; and infrastructure that allows easy access for the workers needed to operate the facility.
Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which is helping with this search, identified four Southcentral Alaska locations – Homer, Kenai, Port Mackenzie and Seward – that meet the criteria and are very interested in the project.
The power costs at these Alaska locations are higher than those in Pacific Northwest states, which are also being considered for the facility.
“While Outside locations may provide cheaper power costs, Alaska is a mining and industrial friendly state that supports the development of value-added activities, and has a regulatory regime that supports responsible development while being less costly than other potential Northwest locations,” AIDEA penned in a preliminary report.
In the meantime, Graphite One and its industrial partner will further refine the graphitic carbon products that this facility will produce.
Graphite One believes the uniqueness of the STAX graphite could provide a major competitive advantage by delivering high-end graphite products at lower costs and with superior performance.