Increasing global demand for graphite

The Kearney Mine in Ontario is the largest confirmed graphite resource in North America

The Kearney Mine in Ontario is shown on a sunny fall day.

Ontario Graphite is working to get the Kearney Mine up and running again. The mine's projected 30-year life would yield various sizes of graphite. — Photo courtesy Ontario Graphite

There are a few materials that make the global shift towards sustainability possible, although not everyone immediately realizes their importance. The demand is continuously increasing for materials like graphite, lithium, copper, nickel and cobalt. Graphite has a host of applications, including batteries in electric vehicles as well as storage cells for renewable grids.

Graphite is not graphite

The challenge lies in conveying the importance of graphite to the public and potential investors.

“It takes a little bit of time and training to understand graphite and its importance,” said Tom Burkett, chief executive officer of Ontario Graphite. “That’s the difficulty with the graphite industry—getting people to understand that graphite is not graphite is not graphite.”

The first distinction is natural versus synthetic graphite. Synthetic graphite is not considered environmentally friendly, while natural graphite is. Then, natural graphite is divided between amorphous, high crystalline and flake. Each type of graphite has a different use.

Diving into the applications of graphite, there are the obvious uses in batteries. “It has a very high storage capability, and its energy density is critical to getting the power you need from lithium batteries,” Burkett said. The unique properties of graphite have made it useful elsewhere as well. It has a high temperature resistance, chemical resistance and thermal conductivity.

In terms of a graphite deposit, Burkett said there is a misunderstanding here as well. “You’ll hear people talk about their graphite deposit like they do in the gold industry. In the gold industry, you talk about your deposit in terms of grade or what percentage of gold you have,” he said. With gold, a higher percentage is obviously better. Due to the variety of graphite deposits and their associated variety of applications, 15 per cent graphite isn’t necessarily any better than two per cent graphite.

The Kearney Mine

The Kearney Mine in the Town of Kearney, Ontario, is the largest confirmed graphite resource in North America and one of the largest deposits outside of China and North Korea. The type of graphite is important to note as well. Different sizes of graphite flakes target entirely different markets, further showcasing that graphite is not graphite across all mines. 

“We have a fair percentage that is on the smaller size to go into batteries. We also have these very large flakes that would go into the new applications that are what I call premium applications,” Burkett said.

The mine has a 30-year predicted life with 43.5 million tonnes of measured and indicated resources, and 12.3 million tonnes of inferred resources, primarily large-flake natural graphite. A mine of this size—and the production it has shown—will put Canada on the map regarding the global supply for graphite. Approximately half of the material in the mine is very-large-flake graphite and larger.

Burkett is tasked with the goal of helping potential investors understand the various applications of the different sizes of graphite flakes and, therefore, the potential of the Kearney Mine in the global market. The company is currently raising capital to complete construction and move into production at the Kearney Mine. “We have local support from people because this mine was running before, and we are just trying to get it up and running again,” Burkett said.

The Kearney Mine will not only produce an environmentally friendly material, but Ontario Graphite is doing everything it can to operate the mine with environmental stewardship as the priority. “The mine sat for years with no real critical stewardship over the mine, so that is something the nearby communities rightfully worry about,” said Burkett. “Long term, we want to be sure that we protect the environment” at the same time as supporting clean technology and promoting Canada as a player in the industry.

Canada in global cleantech

Canadians should be paying attention to projects like the Kearney Mine. With the shift to renewables comes the demand for the materials required to create sustainable systems. “The whole world is moving towards sustainable and renewable energy. From the Ontario standpoint, there are materials that are critical to this industry,” Burkett said.

To keep up with the shift and set Canada up as a cleantech player on a global scale, pursuing projects like graphite is a step in the right direction. Also considering the location of these kinds of materials in the past, participating in a global market will help Canada become more independent.

“I don’t think the world wants to depend on China for everything,” said Burkett. “The world as a whole needs to look at this strategically because we all need to manage and build our own systems. We should be interdependent in certain aspects, but we don’t want to be dependent on others.” 

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