Graphite: The Boom, China’s Bottleneck and the Exploration Crunch
In graphite very few can doubt the potential. When the metal first came into use its applications were widely restricted to lubricants and pencils. The impending boom of the auto industry in the 1960s then allowed it to tap into new markets, substantially widening graphite’s reach and economic value. Today, a similar pattern of technological innovation and ‘new industry’ is at work, promising an enormous appetite that is firmly rooted in graphite’s ever-expanding applications. There is much to be said about the metal’s distinct ability to remain sought after in ‘old’ industries whilst simultaneously enjoying a firm reliance amongst those of the 21st century. According to Simon Moores, graphite’s versatility is a result of its key properties. He noted, “it’s conductive; it’s a lubricant; it’s resistant to high temperatures and it’s a strong mineral”. In graphite almost all the boxes are ticked and many within the industry are well aware of its potential. Kevin Puil, senior analyst for the Encompass Fund, exclaimed, “there is no substitute for graphite in many technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries. Between cell phones, tablets, laptops, hybrid and electric cars…the industry is growing at 25-30 percent annually.” And thus the growth of the hi-tech industry is commonly perceived as our 21st century equivalent to the 1960’s auto-industry boom. But where the potential is evident and the demand is insatiable, supply simply isn’t. The graphite industry, amongst the fastest growing, has recently seen the wind knocked off its sail because the world’s largest graphite producer is currently holding a very tight reign.
China currently accounts for about 70 percent of global graphite production and it has recently demonstrated a stance towards even greater protectionism. Jacob Securities’ Senior Mining and Metals Analyst, Luisa Moreno, stated, “China wants to better utilize its resources primarily for its own economic development…China, just as most nations, would like to be self-sufficient in key mineral resources”. Moreno then went on to exclaim, “I believe China is in a resource-preservation mode”. In reality there is little the rest of the world can do about it because in truth, nobody is going to fathom the power to bully the world’s second largest economy. China’s stance had led to several repercussions. For one, it has ensured that the price of graphite has grown considerably higher. Kevin Puil noted, “China definitely has a stranglehold on the global graphite supply…It’s 20 percent export duty, 17 percent valued added tax and export licensing system should further tighten supply and drive prices higher”. So on negative side, the graphite boom has come at a time when our primary supply has chosen to restrict its rare earth exports. On the plus side, it has prompted the rapid growth and expansion of juniors across the world.
A lot of these juniors have sprung up in Canada, companies of the likes of Northern Graphite Corp. (NGC:TSX: NGPHF:OTCQX). Northern Graphite currently holds 100 percent interest in its Bissett Creek deposit in Ontario. The deposit is conveniently located 17 kilometers from the Trans Canada Highway and boasts considerable infrastructure. This was reiterated by Kevin Puil, who noted, “its entire Bissett Creek deposit in Ontario is flake graphite…it has great infrastructure nearby, including power, gas roads and a small community”. According to Puil, flake graphite “is sought after for its applications in new technologies like lithium-ion batteries and solar panels”. As a result flake is more valuable than other types of graphite and fetches a higher price.
Last week, Northern Graphite announced it had formed a strategic partnership with Panacis, a company that makes battery systems in the telecommunications, defense and renewable energy industries. Northern’s chief executive, Gregory Bowes, stated, “Panacis has a great deal of knowledge and expertise with respect to the manufacture and testing of Lithium ion batteries and has established relationships with most manufacturers. This provides us with a very important window into the Lithium ion battery world”. Northern graphite has allowed itself to stand out, boasting flake graphite that is essential to many new industries and at the same time, tying down a partnership with a powerful buyer.
With China continuing to bottleneck short-term supply chains, juniors such as Northern have been provided with huge incentives and have spent considerable amounts in exploration and feasibility studies. They are still years away from production, but given their strong financial position, these companies look poised to capitalize. Strong demand, high prices and Chinese export restrictions are a proving a perfect formula for the success of today’s juniors.