An Emerging Innovator
Industrial minerals company Great Lakes Graphite’s new plant will be refining flake graphite to add value to products wanted by the existing graphite market while preparing for exciting future uses. Business In Focus spoke to Chief Marketing Officer and Director Paul Ferguson; Chief Executive Officer and Director Paul Gorman; Innovations Division Chief Operating Officer Jerry Janik; and Innovations Division Senior Vice President of Sales and President Mike Coscia.
Graphite is a crystalline form of carbon and is normally its most stable form. Everyone knows this material from his or her schooldays as the core in a pencil, but its uses are myriad. Electric motor brushes, foundry facings, vehicle brakes, steel, refractories, zinc-carbon batteries and lubricants are but a few products that employ graphite in their manufacture.
In industrial applications, powdered graphite is widely used for its lubricating properties. Its high thermal stability sees it used as coatings in foundry moulds in the steel industry. When combined with its heat resistance, its electrical conductivity means it is used as arc lamp electrodes or as a pressure sensor in carbon microphones.
It sees vital military uses in aircraft coatings, missile parts, body armour and engine turbine components. Graphite fibres give strength to the heat-resistant and carbon fibre plastics and composites that make up bicycle frames, some auto body panels, fishing rods, golf club shafts, pool cues and even the airframe of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
One graphite use that is set to become huge is in the manufacture of the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars. Tesla Motors is constructing the massive Tesla Gigafactory 1 in Nevada that, by next year, should begin production of batteries for its cars and the Powerwall batteries for home solar use. North American demand for graphite will increase, and Great Lakes Graphite will be ready to serve the needs of this and other high-tech companies.
“All of a sudden, people started to look at carbon a little more closely. Flake graphite is like a deck of cards. If you were to look at this deck of cards, pull them apart and test each single layer of those cards, then put them back together in one big sheet, like a puzzle, the amount of uses you derive from that piece of carbon allows you to do many things.”
Since it can handle high temperatures, this material can be processed into graphite foil to be made into the plates in fuel cells or into lightweight heat sinks that prevent thin electronics from overheating.
Great Lakes Graphite is re-commissioning the Matheson micronization facility in Matheson, Ontario, an hour east of Timmins. The plant has convenient railroad and highway access for bulk materials handling, and the company was able to save a tremendous amount of money by reusing and refurbishing the Matheson mill, instead of having to obtain land, build a facility and acquire permits.
“We started working on this in March of 2015 and are nearly at the point where we are ready for production. We have our permit and are finishing up the electrical connections. It will save us somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 million off building this facility and purchasing the land.”
It will take approximately $1.2 million to get the plant operational and fully permitted before being able to process commercial volumes of micronized flake graphite. There is a five-year agreement with an option for renewal that has been made with the site’s owner, Northfill Resources.
Great Lakes Graphite has a distinct upper hand in becoming established in this market due to its purchase of an existing plant. To get to this point from scratch would likely take two to three years and an enormous financial investment. “The advantage we had was that the plant was already permitted, and we just had to go for a change in the permit status in order to do graphite.”
It will begin by selling to the lubricant and battery market and other readily accessible traditional graphite industries. “We will be dealing in brakes and brake pads specifically, along with the alkaline battery markets. Our goal is to work on the traditional graphite markets. These industries have been around for decades, and the goal is to look at these emerging markets over the next twelve to eighteen months as we get ourselves established in these traditional markets.”
Companies in this industry are either small enterprises attempting to develop a mine or huge, established multinationals. Great Lakes Graphite is something different. “We fit in the middle, and that’s why we are unique. We do not own a mine and spend a lot of money trying to remove material out of the ground, and we are not a large $100 to $200 million company looking to place finished product such as gaskets into well-tilled industries.”
Mike has discovered that procurement teams for businesses that use graphite in a micronized form are very excited by what Great Lakes Graphite can offer. These companies have been dealing with China for a long time, and varying quality control means the material coming from the Far East sometimes doesn’t meet standards.
“With our process and with what we are offering them, they are very satisfied as they go through the qualification process to see that we are going to be supplying them with a product that economically meets their standards and, from a quality perspective, does the same.”
There are also economic development and security concerns in having to depend strictly on imports for crucial minerals. North America is currently entirely dependent on imports of several minerals, and China supplies over seventy percent of the world’s graphite.
In the United States, graphite is a critical ingredient in goods manufactured by more than ninety companies. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is also the chair of Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, introduced The American Mineral Security Act of 2015. The bill, acknowledging the need for domestic supply, proposes that the U.S. Geological Survey create a list of critical minerals and reform the process by which federal mine permits are granted.
“It is not just rare earths that we depend on from China, and it is not just China that we depend on for a stunning array of minerals that improve every aspect of our daily lives,” stated Senator Murkowski. “Right as foreign oil becomes less of a national concern, our foreign mineral dependence has taken its place as an insidious threat to America’s security, growth and competitiveness.”
Since no graphite has been produced in North America since 1991, Great Lakes Graphite Inc. is importing low-cost flake graphite from Brazil to be processed at its Matheson facility. The country is the second-largest producer of flake graphite in the world, and Great Lakes has made a five-year deal with graphite wholesaler DNI Metals to procure the graphite it needs to develop its raw materials processing chain.
“We are now able to supply them materials that we are bringing in from Brazil, micronizing here and purifying. In the future, we are going to be purifying materials to allow other companies to use our materials at a much more expensive rate, but a much more clean finished product.”
The company has sent samples of its micronized graphite and aims to be selling later this year. This will build the necessary capital to begin mining its own deposits. It has several graphite deposits in Quebec and Ontario, including one near Lochaber, Quebec, a mere thirty kilometres from Ottawa.
“We started to look for graphite assets in North America. That led us to the acquisition of the Lochaber graphite deposit in March of 2014. It gave us the basis and platform to where we are now, which is an integrator of carbon products and some other electric metals.” The vertically integrated supply chain will be a key advantage in providing graphite to North America.
With the development of innovative technologies in batteries for solar powered homes and vehicles and other clean technology applications, the graphite market will see increasing demand, and Great Lakes Graphite is firmly establishing itself to take advantage of this.