In contrast to natural graphite, synthetic graphite has a higher production cost due to the increased energy requirements for graphitization. Additionally, it is more challenging to mill synthetic graphite into spherical particles. However, synthetic graphite offers a longer cycle life and slightly higher initial coulombic efficiency.
A recent report by IDTechEx highlights that although there are differences between natural and synthetic graphite, the performance and cost overlap between the two types has been narrowing. Other factors such as cathode choice, electrolyte additives, coating, particle size and distribution, electrode balance, as well as graphite product specifications and quality, play a significant role in overall cell performance, cost, and cycle life.
According to the report, “Both synthetic and natural graphite continue to be used with blends widely utilized. IDTechEx estimates that there is a roughly equal sales split, by kt, between synthetic graphite and natural graphite. However, in recent years, there has been a slight shift towards natural graphite due to cost pressures and high energy prices.”
Despite this shift, increasing the production of natural graphite to meet the growing demand for Li-ion batteries has proven to be a challenge. The report also highlights that natural graphite has been included in the latest critical raw materials/minerals lists by the US Department of Energy and the European Commission, primarily due to the important role of Li-ion batteries in transportation electrification and stationary storage applications. China’s dominance in graphite anode production poses a supply risk, although there are emerging players in North America (Syrah Resources, Northern Graphite, and Nouveau Monde) and Europe (Talga Resources, SGL Carbon, and Vianode) who are developing Li-ion graphite anode production outside of China.
Alongside diversifying material supply, the report emphasizes the importance of improved sustainability and ESG metrics in new graphite production. Lower energy consumption and reduced emissions are becoming increasingly critical factors, particularly in Europe with the implementation of carbon footprint labels and declarations for Li-ion batteries over 2 kWh in size. While natural graphite has the advantage of lower energy consumption, the purification process must also manage particulate emissions and acid waste streams carefully.
The market researcher suggests that lower costs and renewable energy sources could enhance the competitiveness of synthetic graphite in terms of lower carbon emissions, although it would still depend on fossil feedstock. Ultimately, the dynamic Li-ion graphite anode market and the high growth rate in Li-ion demand will drive the ongoing demand for both synthetic and natural graphite anode materials.