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“Key for the inventions of the future” — Could this mining project solve America’s graphite problem?

Ore body containing graphite is shown in this 2021 photo of Graphite Creek. At far left is a Graphite One drill rig.
Ore body containing graphite is shown in this 2021 photo of Graphite Creek. At far left is a Graphite One drill rig. Photo by George Case, U.S. Geological Survey.

  • Graphite is essential to the clean energy transition and the White House estimates demand for it and lithium will skyrocket by 400-600% over the next few decades.

  • The U.S. has a graphite problem — the country imports 100% of its graphite, the vast majority of which comes from China.

  • Without a domestic supply, the federal government says national security and clean energy innovation and ambition are both at risk. Plus, most of the world’s graphite is synthetic which is reliant on fossil fuels.

  • A natural reserve in Alaska may help solve both problems and Canadian startup, Graphite One, is spearheading the movement with a $37.5 million grant from the Department of Defence.

  • While the Alaskan deposit is among the largest in the world, there are concerns regarding mining in the untouched Arctic tundra, disrupting migrations, and harming sustenance resources like fish and deer, from local Natives, highlighting the need for responsible, environmentally-conscious mining, as the project is set to begin in 2027.

As Alaskan Representative Mary Peltola puts it, the critical mineral graphite is “key for the inventions of the future from clean energy to advanced defense technologies.”

However, currently, the United States imports 100% of its graphite, a mineral typically thought of as essential for smartphones, but is also a keystone ingredient for electrifying our world and shifting the economy, our energy systems, and our everyday ways of life away planet-warming fossil fuels.

From electric vehicles and renewable energy-storing batteries to solar panels and wind turbines, it’s an understatement to say we can’t transition to a cleaner world without critical minerals, especially graphite. Currently, though, the U.S. produces absolutely none of it — not even enough to create a pencil.

But with a $37.5 million grant from the Department of Defence, one startup is poised to change all of that with what the U.S. Geological Survey identifies as one of the world’s largest graphite deposits, right on the Bering Sea coast of Alaska.

map of US graphite deposits
Image Credit: USGS

According to Anthony Huston, the founder, and CEO of Graphite One, the startup behind the grand experiment, the grant underscores its confidence in taking the U.S. from a graphite nonstarter to building “a 100% U.S.-based advanced graphite supply chain – from mining to refining to recycling.”

With plans to have half of all new EV sales be electric by the end of the decade and reach net zero by 2050 while pushing a Made-In-America agenda, it’s been made clear that the U.S. and its clean energy industry — especially the automotive sector – needed a graphite plan like… yesterday.

About 70% of our graphite currently comes from China, with the country producing 60% of the world’s over 1 trillion tons. As the demand rises — the White House expects demand for critical minerals to skyrocket by 400-600% globally over the next few decades with lithium and graphite demand exploding by 4000% — U.S. imports alone rose 55% last year.

As President Biden reportedly said in signing the 2021 executive order focused on America’s supply chains, “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.”

Now, for want for graphite, the clean energy transition could be lost, because ultimately, as the Department of Commerce explains in the executive summary of the order’s review, “ultimately, volume drives both innovation and operational learning; in the absence of the commercial volume, the United States will not be able to keep up […] with the technology, in terms of quality, cost, or workforce.”

The U.S. has not mined the critical mineral graphite in over three decades and currently, the country doesn’t have the resources to process it. Why? Well, once upon a time in the 1950s America had a booming graphite mining business in Alabama but the state’s mines went idle once other countries began offering graphite in international markers at cheaper prices, as synthetic graphite emerged.

However, mining and producing graphite naturally is 55% less carbon intensive than synthetic production, which is dependent on the fossil fuel industry, aka the enablers of climate change, because the graphitization of coke products into synthetic graphite relies on coal and other fossil fuel feedstocks. It doesn’t help that most of the world’s lithium-ion batteries use synthetic graphite.

As George Miller, an analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a supply chain market intelligence firm laser-focused on the clean energy transition, said in a 2022 report, compared to the synthetic supply chain, the natural graphite supply chain is much more fragile.

“In the long term, however, the phase-out of fossil fuels poses a threat to the continued large-scale supply of coke to the synthetic graphite supply chain,” he added. And phasing out fossil fuels is essential to reaching net zero carbon emissions in order to stop the planet from well… burning.

While the emissions produced from synthetic graphite and battery production do not hold a candle to that produced by gas cars, it’s still not great.

 Natural flake graphite
Natural flake graphite // Creative Commons Image

It sounds like a catch-22 of emitting carbon to solve the emissions problem… but it’s not.

That’s why in order to take on both the issues of the lack of domestic graphite production, the majority of global production reliant on fossil fuels, and the whole climate crisis thing, Graphite One is using Department of Defence funding to establish the first graphite mine in the U.S. in decades, ultimately changing the game for production in the country.

“Once operational, production from Graphite One will substantially reduce the U.S.’ wholesale dependence on China and other nations for natural graphite,” the press release from the Alaskan delegation — U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Representative Mary Peltola – reads.

According to Benchmark Minerals, 97 new graphite mines will be needed by 2035 alone, compared to just over 70 in operation today. Aside from aiding U.S. production, the project also adds to an increasingly crucial global network.

On its website, Graphite One prominently displays the quote: “We are in the midst of a global battery arms race,” said by Simon Moores, managing director for Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, in 2019. The startup tags on: with its plan to build out a vertically-integrated U.S.-based supply chain, supplying 41,850 tonnes of battery-grade graphite, and 13,500 tonnes of additional advanced graphite materials annually, it aims to make up “lost ground” in the arms race.

In Alaska, about 37 miles north of the city of Nome, is the Graphite Creek prospect where the startup plans to do its responsible mining and establish a battery anode manufacturing facility in Washington state, which will be co-located with a battery recycling plant.

“This project will also bring needed jobs and economic development to a rural area of Alaska, with opportunities for hundreds of local hires during construction and operation,” Representative Peltola said in a statement, looking forward to seeing the completion of the feasibility study for this project, which is needed to greenlight its operation.

Already, however, the USGS reports that Graphite Creek is not only the largest source in the country but “among the largest in the world.”

Graphite One isn’t the only startup looking to reignite America’s graphite production.

Westwater Resources hopes to build and operate a mine in the previous graphite hub of Alabama, by 2028. As E&E News reports, already the state agencies have fully permitted the construction of a graphite refinery the company is crafting northeast of the exploration area.

However, both have challenges. In the case of Westwater, some environmentalists worry about how the mine will affect the ecosystem of endangered and threatened species in the area. Similarly, there is worry concerning mining in the virtually untouched Artic tundra with Graphite One.

Clear, cool days are common in September in the park. The blue sky contrasts with the beautiful fall colors on the tundra in the upper Salmon River drainage. Tundra, mountians, and creekbed
Alaskan tundra near upper Salmon River. Image Credit: Western Arctic National Parklands // Creative Commons

According to the company’s 2022 pre-feasibility study, Graphite One still has to reckon with avoiding impacts on rare species including polar bears, in addition to dealing with concerns from local Alaskan natives who’ve raised questions about how the project could harm subsistence resources like fish and deer.

“If that contaminated water hits any of our streams or creeks, or rivers, that could kill off our salmon and sea mammals that use the basin for migratory routes or spawning,” Gilbert Tocktoo, the president of the Native Village of Brevig Mission, reportedly said at a village meeting last year.

The company says it's currently conducting research regarding wetlands, water and air quality, aquatic resources, and the marine environment at or near the mine site, as the Western Alaska radio station KNOM reports from a community meeting last year, but the concerns have yet to dissipate, highlighting the need for responsible mining that puts both the interest of the future of the planet and local communities on the same level.

Graphite One aims to start construction in 2027.

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