With its exceptional properties, flake graphite is a critical, and unique, resource. The material has over 150 applications and is essential for innovative green technologies and high-growth markets such as Li-ion batteries, fire retardants, fuel cells etc. At the recent Mines and Money (M&M) conference in London, the CEO of Tirupati Graphite Plc, Shishir Poddar, explained the material, and his company's role in its development, to delegates.
Mining Beacon (MB) caught up with Mr Poddar after his presentation and asked him about his experience in the sector.
Shishir Poddar (SP): I have over 25 years of experience in the graphite industry, ranging from project building to operations to markets
MB: And Tirupati Graphite?
SP: The group promoters have been leaders in the manufacture of flake graphite for over two decades. Tirupati Carbons & Chemicals Pvt Ltd (TCCPL), the mother company of the Tirupati Graphite Group, was formed in 2006 and operates graphite mines and plants in Jharkhand, India. These assets centre on the Gaura graphite deposit and the Tirupati Rajderwa plant.
MB: Are you just active in India?
SP: No, we formed Tirupati Resources Madagascar in 2012 to mine and process one of the world's best quality flake-graphite deposits. In 2017, in association with Optiva Securities, we formed Tirupati Graphite Plc, based in the UK, to build a world leading flake-graphite company. By this time, the Vatomina project had been identified as a high-grade, high-purity flake graphite deposit (located on the east coast of Madagascar) and Tirupati Graphite acquired it from TCCPL. In October last year, Tirupati Graphite also acquired 100% stake in the operating Sahamamy-Sahasoa graphite mine, which is just 8 km from Vatomina. We are now producing small quantities of high quality flake graphite from Madagascar, and simultaneously developing the Vatomina and Sahamamy projects to sizeable capacities.
MB: What is your strategy?
SP: We are here to build a world leading end-to-end, one-stop solution company for graphite and graphene. We have a three-year modular development plan to produce, by 2021, some 81,000 t/y of primary flake graphite from Madagascar for industrial applications, 20,000 t/y of processed high end flake graphite for lithium ion, expandable polymer and composite applications, and expect to be producing 10 kg/day of graphene oxide and graphene. We expect to invest £20 million in 2018-19, with positive cash flow from the middle of 2019 and organically grow in the following years.
MB: Tell me about flake graphite.
SP: Graphite is an extremely useful material. It is a crystalline form of carbon and is the only non-metallic conductor, a solid lubricant and sustains temperatures of over 3,000°C.
MB: And graphene?
SP: Simply stated, graphene is a single-atom layer of flake graphite. Technically it is an allotrope of carbon consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. It is a semi-metal with small overlap between the valence and the conduction bands. It has many uncommon properties; being the strongest material ever tested, an efficient conductor of heat and electricity, and is nearly transparent. Graphene shows a large and nonlinear diamagnetism (greater than that of graphite) and can be levitated by neodymium magnets. The result is that it has been hailed as a wonder material.
MB: When were these properties recognised?
SP: Scientists have theorized about graphene for years, but the material was only finally isolated in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester (their work resulted in them winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010).
MB: Is there demand for graphite and graphene?
SP: It is just starting for graphene; at the moment its costs are too high for commercial applications, but the material has a huge potential and we intend to contribute in its larger scale commercialisation. Graphite has a very substantial demand, however, helped by most of its applications being consumptive, hence there is little recycling. The growth in electric vehicles, and batteries, fire retardant application and composite materials will be particularly important for demand. For example, every 100 GWh of Li-ion capacity requires some 100,000 t of natural flake graphite. These batteries require three times more graphite than lithium.
MB: Have these uses been reflected in prices?
SP: Yes, graphite prices have been steadily rising for the past two years across all flake sizes. If you take a longer time horizon, the price has more than doubled over the past decade or so.
MB: And the different uses of the flake sizes?
SP: Uses of larger flakes (20-50#) include special refractories, crucibles, gaskets and seals, flame retardants, thermal management and fuel cells. The medium-sized flakes (50-80#) are for magnesia and alumina carbon, and also have applications common with larger flakes. The small sizes (under 80#) are for paints and coatings, lubricants, friction materials, Li-ion batteries and space technology. There is work ongoing to assess whether the larger sizes will give better results for lithium ion as this material has better crystalline properties. Generally, the larger the crystal size the better the properties, making the product more valuable.
MB: Thank you.