Multiple factors lead to graphite electrode price surge

The prices for electrodes made from synthetic graphite have been rising strongly as a result of feedstock cost rises, increased competition and tightened product availability

Fastmarkets’ price assessment for graphite electrodes, ultra-high power, fob China, was $4,250-4,560 per tonne on Thursday March 30, a rise of $620-790 (19.05%) since the market was first assessed at $3,460-3,940 per tonne on January 19, 2022.

Similarly, Fastmarkets’ price assessment for graphite electrodes, high power, fob China, was $3,600-3,780 per tonne on March 30, an increase of $610-630 (20.20%) from $2,990-3,150 per tonne on January 19.

Graphite electrodes are used in steel production and have been subject to a sharp rise in feedstock costs. The prices of needle coke and petroleum coke have been continuously rising since the start of the year.

In China, the largest producer of synthetic graphite, coke prices have risen by 23.53% and 11.57% month-on-month, respectively, to around 8,000-13,000 yuan ($1,243-2,019) per tonne and 6,000-7,500 yuan per tonne, according to market sources.

In addition to rising feedstock prices, the European Commission has imposed anti-dumping duties on Chinese graphite electrodes, which has added to the upward pressure on prices for consumers in Europe.

Synthetic graphite for the lithium-ion battery anode sector has faced the same feedstock cost rises as for graphite electrodes. Additionally, graphite electrodes and synthetic graphite for anodes can rely on the same graphitization processing.

While the anode market has developed in China, it has increased competition for these graphitization facilities with the result that product availability has tightened significantly, raising costs and hindering production of both materials. There is an expectation that this tightness will continue this year, even if the worst has passed in China.

“Graphitization capacity might get less tight in comparison to the second half of last year, when China’s power crunch was at its height,” a battery producer told Fastmarkets. “But we have to admit that there is still prevailing tightness in availability across the anode supply chain, be it for the synthetic raw material or graphitization.”

At the same time that feedstock prices have increased and graphitization has become more challenging, production in China has been hindered by restrictions to prevent the spread of the latest wave of Covid-19 infections.

“Aside from the rise in prices of raw materials, there is concern about availability among downstream consumers amid China’s Covid-19 outbreak, causing transport interruptions for some producers in the north part of China,” a second anode producer source said.

Surging costs and tightening supply of raw materials and processing facilities have resulted in tighter availability of synthetic anode material for the rapidly growing electric vehicle sector, sources said.

Shifting to natural graphite

The combination of raw material and graphitization costs account for approximately 85% of the production cost of graphite anode material, according to sources. Therefore, the steep price rises in synthetic graphite are an incentive for battery manufacturers to increase the share of natural graphite in their anodes, which is estimated to be around 80% in China.

Anode consumers prefer synthetic material due to its higher purity and the consistency of its specifications. Additionally, synthetic graphite offers a longer lifespan and faster charging.

But natural graphite is about half the cost of synthetic, according to Fastmarkets’ research team. As a result, industry participants expect natural graphite to take a higher share of the anode market because of its lower cost profile and higher capacity. Emerging production in South Korea, Japan and Europe is already favoring a higher share of natural graphite than in China, sources said.

Spherical graphite production is dominated by China, but other producers are starting to come on stream. Integrated natural graphite company Talga commissioned the first lithium-ion battery anode plant in Europe at the end of March.

Synthetic graphite production is highly energy-intensive, whereas natural material has a significantly smaller carbon footprint, which is another attraction for electric vehicles manufacturers marketing a sustainable product.

Spherical natural graphite prices have also been rising in response to increased demand and limitations on supply. Fastmarkets’ price assessment for graphite spherical 99.95% C, 15 microns, fob China, was $3,500-3,800 per tonne on March 31, a rise of $1,050-1,200 per tonne (44.55%) from $2,300-2,750 per tonne on April 1, 2021.

The production of natural graphite anode material in China has also been hit by supply-chain issues, such as strict anti-pollution controls in Luobei county and global logistics interruptions over the past two years, according to sources.

Natural graphite maintains a strong cost advantage over its synthetic equivalent although feedstock costs for spherical graphite have also risen.

Fine graphite flake prices surged following tightening supply from China and Africa, and a rise in demand. Fastmarkets’ price assessment for graphite flake 94% C, -100 mesh, fob China, was $830 per tonne on March 31, an increase of $285 per tonne (52.29%) from $545 per tonne on April 1, 2021.

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