Synthetic versus natural graphite debate rages on: 2023 preview

The graphite anode industry is becoming more competitive due to evolving market dynamics and falling costs for synthetic anode, against the backdrop of weaker demand, while there is increasing localization of natural graphite

Graphite anodes remain the mainstream choice for downstream battery makers globally. But competition is growing between natural and synthetic graphite due to the weaker outlook.

Synthetic graphite anode materials will continue to hold the lion’s share of the market in the lithium-ion battery industry in the near term, but expectations of growing natural anode consumption have been under the spotlight due to their respective advantages in battery manufacturing.

Natural graphite anode has the advantages of lower cost, high capacity and lower energy consumption compared with the corresponding synthetic anode. But the latter performs much better in electrolyte compatibility, fast-charge turnaround and battery longevity.

But when the prices for natural anode materials are at enough of a discount against the synthetic ones, downstream manufacturers will show more willingness to expand the ratio of the former in battery manufacturing, according to market sources.

In 2021, a power crunch in China, the major production hub for synthetic anode globally, resulted in a supply shortage of synthetic anode. Surging prices drove market participants to increase the share of natural graphite anode in their battery production.

Prices for mostly-used synthetic anode jumped between 2020 and the third quarter of 2022, rising by 16.67% for high-end synthetic materials, 33.33% for mid-range materials and 90.47% for low-end materials, according to sources.

But the release of more synthetic anode capacity and the easing of power control policies led to falling synthetic costs from the final quarter of 2022, which changed market sentiment.

By the end of November last year, prices of synthetic anode dropped from their September high points by 2.72% for high-end, 5.17% for mid-range and 5% for low-end materials.

Market participants are therefore now asking which will see more expansion in anode consumption in 2023.

Falling synthetic anode costs amid capacity expansion, weaker demand

Power restrictions in 2021 resulted in surging graphitization prices due to the shortage of operation capacity.

“The price [of graphitization] jumped by 71.43% through 2021 to around 24,000 yuan [$3,541] per tonne at the year’s end, from 14,000 yuan per tonne at the start of 2021,” a source in China said.

Surging processing costs prompted major anode producers in China to extend their supply chains upstream before stricter environmental or energy restriction policies could be put in place.

Total anode capacity was said to have surpassed 800,000 tonnes in China by the middle of 2022.

The increase in new operating lines in many parts of the East Asian country, together with declining downstream demand, eased concerns about graphitization tightness and the risks of power shortages, leading to lower production costs, according to market sources.

“Costs for synthetic anode have been falling by round 3,000-4,000 yuan per tonne over the past couple of months due to more capacity in the market. In addition, softening downstream demand added more pressure to the synthetic anode market,” a second source in China said.

A battery producer in China said that industry participants unanimously believe that growing graphitization capacity is lowering the costs for anode production, which will remain into 2023.

“We used to think that the price of graphitization would not fall to 15,000-16,000 yuan per tonne until the second half of 2023. The reality, however, is that it’s happening now,” the second source added.

Adding graphitization capacity with shift from electrodes

Meanwhile, higher marginal profits have been attracting new capacity, originally used for electrode graphitization. The steelmaking sector is shifting to outsourcing anode processing, according to market sources.

“There is still a higher profit margin in the anode sector compared with electrodes production, so there is more production appetite, despite the dropping prices for synthetic anode materials,” a graphite electrodes producer in China said.

Synthetic graphite electrodes are used in the recycling of steel. The production of graphite electrodes uses similar feedstock in an Acheson graphitization furnace to make synthetic graphite anode material.

There was pressure on the graphite electrodes market in the second half of 2022 due to weakening downstream demand from the steel sector.

Fastmarkets assessed the price for graphite electrodes, ultra high power, fob China, at $3,400-4,100 per tonne on January 4, down by 16.67% from the 2022 year-high of $4,200-4,800 per tonne. Prices had been mostly on an upward trend in the first half of 2022, but softened in the slow summer then improved from September.

This fall in the fob China market was particularly clear in the European market, where demand has been damped by soaring electricity prices. This has weakened the competitiveness of Europe’s steel market, according to market sources.

But some market participants think that it is not easy to switch production between different materials so it is unlikely that many of Europe’s electrodes producers would change, according to Corina Hebestreit, secretary general of the European Carbon Graphite Association.

“It is not simple to make that switch,” she said. “Although some may be considering it, it takes investment. The production of anode material requires different materials and processing, so you cannot just move from one to the other.”

In addition, high power prices in Europe have put pressure on the profitability of the production of energy-intensive materials, such as synthetic graphite.

Natural anode in China: short-term stalemate

“In principle, more natural anode consumption in lithium-ion batteries should be the trend in the development of the industry, given its advantages in costs and more environmentally friendly production methods,” a graphite producer source outside China said.

“However, weakening synthetic materials are bound to delay the process,” he added. “With the premium held by synthetic anodes over the corresponding natural ones narrowing downward, downstream battery makers tend to shift more demand to synthetic anode materials, given its better performance.”

The spherical graphite market has been in a stalemate for a while due to the pressure from downstream battery makers’ efforts to cut prices and slow demand.

“With the end of subsidies [for purchases of electric vehicles] and the surge of Covid-19 case numbers in China, we expect a weaker market for graphite in the first half of 2023,” Fastmarkets battery research analyst Georgi Georgiev said.

“Prices for uSPG [uncoated spherical graphite] in China have been declining since June 2022 and are at their lowest level since October 2021. The indications for slowing demand from the automotive sector, in combination with other factors, could result in further pressure on uSPG prices,” he added.

“The expected global recession would have further effects on the demand for graphite from the steel sector, which has gone through a difficult year. A recession would also likely lead to lower freight rates, which could enable further price competition,” he said.

Fastmarkets’ price assessment for graphite, spherical, 99.95% C, 15 microns, fob China, was $2,500-2,800 per tonne on January 5. This compared with $3,500-3,600 per tonne in June 2022.

But the price of the upstream raw material - graphite flake, 94% C, -100 mesh, fob China - was assessed at $830 per tonne on the same day, largely stable over the second half of last year.

Falling spherical graphite prices indicated market pressure from downstream anode producers, whether from slow demand or cost pressure from falling synthetic prices. This, in turn, temporarily damped demand for flake fines, the upstream raw material, according to market sources.

“Tender prices for uncoated spherical graphite from major battery makers are low, so only a few spherical graphite producers would likely make an agreement. Consequently, most other spherical graphite producers are reducing their procurement of flake fines,” a spherical graphite producer in China said.

A lot of spherical graphite operations have been suspended both in Luobei, a major hub of spherical graphite production, and in Shandong, due to either cold weather or low profit margins. There is thus less support for flake graphite in the winter, according to a second spherical graphite producer in China.

“For spherical graphite producers, the profit margin narrows once the price of flake fines is more than 5,000 yuan per tonne,” the same source added.

Supply concerns about flake fines were likely to remain an issue in the market despite slower demand for spherical graphite manufacturing.

“Domestic supply of flake fines is mostly limited to Luobei, Heilongjiang province, subject to cold weather in the winter. Supply expansion is also slow to progress,” the battery producer told Fastmarkets.

For alternate sources outside China, principally Syrah Resources in Mozambique, supply is under threat from multiple factors, including strikes.

China imported 105,006 tonnes of flake graphite from Mozambique between January and November 2022, down by 26.85% year on year from 143,555 tonnes in 2019, when Syrah’s operation was not affected by Covid-19, according to Chinese customs data.

Natural anode worldwide: supply localization grows

The prospects for natural graphite active anode material (AAM) could differ between China and the rest of the world.

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in Europe and the US will be looking to secure supply of materials with favorable ESG credentials, and at prices enabling them to be cost-competitive with Chinese producers. So the lower carbon footprint associated with natural graphite, combined with the lower prices for natural active anode material, could result in growing demand for natural materials over synthetic.

Yet growing geopolitical tensions and more stringent environmental requirements could create obstacles for Chinese supply in the North American and European markets in the short to mid-term, according to Fastmarkets’ Georgiev.

A deficit in anode material outside China is therefore expected to develop.

We forecast strong demand, rising costs and supply constraints to propel graphite prices higher over 2023-25. Total apparent demand for natural graphite is expected to reach 1.5 million tonnes in 2023, against 1.25 million tonnes in 2022.

Meanwhile, supply of natural graphite is expected to reach 1.5 million tonnes in 2023, against 1.28 million tonnes in 2022. But the majority of this is produced in China, accounting for 66.67% of the total in 2022, according to Fastmarkets’ battery raw material research team.

Graphite is considered a critical raw material by both the EU and the US, where lawmakers are aware of the need to secure supply and ease their reliance on China for material.

Increasing their capacities for anode material production will require permitting and an economic situation that makes the investment worthwhile.

“There are risks that permitting and electricity costs will affect the production of synthetic graphite,” a second producer source said. “These are also risks for natural [material], but I suspect that they are more pronounced for synthetic, primarily with respect to electricity costs.”

On the supply side, one advantage of natural graphite is its lower cost than synthetic. And those costs are higher in the EU and the US than in China.

“Non-Chinese producers operate at a higher environment cost and have to deal with the difficult task of raising money to fund construction,” the second producer source said.

Consequently, outside China, there is a greater preference for natural graphite.

US carmaker Tesla recently increased its offtake agreement for active anode material (AAM) from Australia-based graphite miner Syrah Resources from its production facility in the US.

Canadian natural graphite company Nouveau Monde plans to become the biggest graphite producer in North America’s anode supply chain, through its partnerships with existing Japanese battery companies, such as Panasonic, chief executive officer Eric Desaulniers told Fastmarkets in November.

Northern Graphite, another Canada-based natural graphite producer, has signed a letter of intent with Graphex Technologies, an anode manufacturer in North America, to set up a joint venture to produce natural graphite anode materials, targeting capacity for 200,000 tonnes per year of anode materials in Canada.

“Graphex’s anode site in [the US state of] Michigan is under construction now and will be available by the end of 2023. Total capacity there will reach 15,000 tpy. Together with Syrah’s capacity, we think that it’s not enough for the market. That’s why we are going to 200,000 tpy of anode for our new joint venture,” Hugues Jacquemin, Northern’s CEO, said.

Canada has the potential to become a significant graphite producer in the next decade given the anticipated effects of the US Inflation Reduction Act and the trend toward development of regional supply chains, in response to the logistics disruptions in value chains because of Covid-19, according to Fastmarkets’ battery research team.

Natural anode expansion holds with competition

The anode market is in a state of rapid development and consumers are making decisions about the share of natural and synthetic graphite they want to use in their anodes.

This involves weighing up the conflicting benefits and costs of the different materials.

“One might draw the conclusion that the cell makers are more likely to lead the market on this issue, with both cost and environmental considerations favoring natural, versus synthetic offering a potentially ‘safer’ choice, because it has been used more in lithium-ion batteries and offers greater consistency in performance,” a fourth natural graphite producer source said.

Some market participants believe that while battery manufacturers might increase the share of natural anode because of the high costs for the synthetic ones, falling prices for the latter would mean that expansion of the former could be affected, according to sources.

But concern about the availability of needle coke, the raw material for synthetic anode, and its high carbon dioxide footprint would mean that battery makers need to reevaluate the design of their batteries, according to market sources.

The lower carbon footprint of natural graphite, a priority for consumers in the EU and the US, as well as expectations that the carbon footprint of battery raw materials will be taxed in the EU, has incentivized consumers to further focus on natural graphite in their plans.

Jacquemin said that EV manufacturers are becoming more and more concerned about their CO2 footprint. The CO2 footprint for synthetic graphite is bad because it starts with petroleum coke.

“And the capacity for petroleum coke around the world is limited,” he added. “The CO2 footprint in graphitization of coke is also bad. Over time, we will see the shift to natural graphite. But this means that they need to redesign the battery industry.

“Also, [there must be a] redesign of natural graphite to reduce the amount of swelling. Once we [achieve that], I think natural graphite anode will perform much better than synthetic graphite anode,” he said.

“The EU is more focused on carbon emissions,” the fourth producer source said, “because it looks like the direction of travel is for costs to include trading scheme credits. These could be massive for synthetic graphite.”

Nevertheless, there are also steps among both emerging and existing producers of synthetic anode material to lower their emissions by introducing new technologies and using renewable energy sources for the graphitization process.

The use of hydroelectricity in regions with abundant hydro resources could affect graphitization costs, making the production of synthetic anode material more cost competitive.

As a result, according to Georgiev, natural graphite could increasingly face competition from ESG-friendly synthetic graphite.

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