Synthetic graphite for EV batteries: Can the West crack China’s code?

(This Sept. 12 story has been refiled to change Hans Erik Vatne’s title to interim CEO/COO of Vianode, from chairman)

By Paul Lienert and Nick Carey

(Reuters) – New investments in the United States and Europe aim to challenge China’s stranglehold on a key ingredient used in most electric vehicle batteries – graphite – but industry experts said that will be an uphill battle.

The focus is shifting to a new front: Synthetic graphite, an element developed in the late 19th century, but only redirected toward EVs in the past decade.

Its application is growing quickly. Synthetic graphite could account for nearly two-thirds of the EV battery anode market by 2025, estimates Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

Each EV on average needs 50-100 kg (110-220 pounds) of graphite in its battery pack for the anodes, the negative electrodes of a battery, about twice the amount of lithium.

While the market for synthetic graphite is expected to grow more than 40% over the next five years to $4.2 billion in 2028, according to researcher Mordor Intelligence, companies looking to carve out a new direction face formidable competition from China.

That country refines more than 90% of the world’s natural graphite — used in virtually all EV battery anodes — and Chinese battery materials giants such as BTR and Shanshan are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to ramp up production of synthetic graphite.

The introduction of synthetic graphite in the battery supply chain “is mature and commercially successful in China,” said analyst Victoria Hugill of UK-based researcher Rho Motion.

“It’s dumbfounding, especially on the anode side, to see the number and the scale of participants” in China, said Chris Burns, chief executive officer of Australian battery materials supplier Novonix . “Guys like BTR and Shanshan just keep growing out of proportion to the rest of the world.”

While Chinese producers control a significant share of the small, but growing synthetic graphite market, newcomers such as U.S.-based Anovion, Novonix, and Norway’s Vianode are being driven by two factors, said Hugill.

“It’s easier to set up a synthetic graphite production facility than it is to commission new mining sites for natural graphite” because producers can take advantage of incentives in last year’s U.S. Inflation Reduction Act to build synthetic graphite capacity in the U.S. or Free Trade Agreement partners, she said. And new facilities don’t need to be located near a graphite mine, she said.

New synthetic graphite production operations in the United States, including Anovion’s $800 million plant in Bainbridge, Georgia, and Novonix’s $160 million plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will benefit from U.S. incentives included in the IRA and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, executives said.

Vianode, owned by Norsk Hydro, battery maker Elkem and Altor Equity Partners, aims to build synthetic graphite facilities in both Europe and North America, with enough capacity to supply up to 2 million EVs a year by 2030.

It’s a unique proposition: A production process powered by renewable energy, with a carbon footprint 90% lower than that of Chinese graphite refiners, according to Hans Erik Vatne, a former Hydro executive, now interim CEO/COO of Vianode.

The Vianode process could dispel concerns that synthetic graphite’s production process, traditionally based on fossil fuels, is not sustainable. Vatne also cites the benefits of synthetic graphite: Faster charging and longer battery life.

Other experts note synthetic graphite is generally higher purity and offers better and more predictable performance than natural graphite.

And the price gap between the two has narrowed significantly this year, driving producers to blend even more synthetic material into their battery anodes, which still represent less than 10% of the cost of an EV battery cell.

The growing need for clean, consistent battery material “is one of the main drivers for synthetic graphite,” according to battery expert Bob Galyen, founder of Galyen Energy and former chief technology officer of China’s CATL, the world’s largest EV battery maker.

Still, the construction of new production facilities for synthetic graphite, even with federal incentives, requires a staggering investment, said Novonix’s Burns. “The biggest challenge that our industry faces is the amount of capital that has to flow to make a dent in the supply chain.”

In the meantime, China will continue to dominate synthetic graphite production, according to researcher Fastmarkets, which forecasts Chinese production of the material will grow from about 1.6 million metric tons this year to 2 million in 2030.

“The real truth is China will be the biggest player in this market for the next 10 or 20 years,” said Burns. “The balance of supply and demand is and will remain absurdly askew for the balance of this decade in terms of North American options.”

(Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit and Nick Carey in London; editing by Timothy Gardner)