Graphite: the raw material for batteries of the future

New technologies are needed to develop a green economy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, and implement a sustainable green transition.

The European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA) recently published a report, Materials for Energy Storage and Conversion: A European Call to Action, which emphasises the implementation of concrete and measurable actions to ensure a sustainable supply of critical raw materials to the European Union, outlined in the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act. One of these actions is the development of European innovations and technological capabilities in the field of batteries.

By 2030, carbon emissions from new cars purchased in the EU must be reduced by 55%. Such a bar was set in the package of legislative initiatives “Fit for 55”, which aims to ensure a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU by 55% by 2030. In 2035, all new cars for sale must have zero emissions. This increases the demand for electric cars, which entails an increase in the demand for batteries, which, in turn, requires more and more raw materials for their production. Since mineral reserves are finite, there is a need to develop innovative technologies in the field of batteries to increase their productivity and capacity.

The most common material used in batteries is lithium. And the most effective use as the main batteries for electric cars is lithium-ion batteries.

Nevertheless, lithium-ion batteries have a number of disadvantages:

  • high cost;
  • a narrow range of operating temperatures (for effective operation at low temperatures, the battery must be heated, which leads to its faster discharge);
  • a characteristic process of “ageing” – a decrease in capacity with age;
  • it is highly undesirable for the battery to be completely discharged and recharged.

Graphite is used to increase the power and capacity of lithium-ion batteries. Graphite is a mineral of the class of native semimetals, the most stable crystalline form of carbon in the earth’s crust. Graphite-based materials (eg, graphite-LiMO2) are commonly used as substitutes for pure metal anodes.

Graphene is an allotropic modification of carbon. It is one of the many physical forms that carbon can exist in, consisting of a single layer of atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice. In 2004, the University of Manchester managed to separate the atomic layer of graphene from the graphite crystal. Due to its strength, reliability and flexibility, graphene has great potential for use in many fields. Among them are battery technologies, technology for the desalination of seawater to a state suitable for drinking, and road construction.

In 2011, Northwestern University engineers discovered that graphene anodes store energy better than graphite, resulting in ten times better battery life. In 2013, researchers at Rice University in Texas predicted that graphene with some boron atoms added could be used to produce an ultra-thin, flexible anode for lithium-ion batteries. Boron helps the lithium ions stick to the graphene, thereby helping to ensure fast charging. Rice University researchers also found that graphene mixed with vanadium oxide can be used to develop high-efficiency cathodes that can be recharged in 20 seconds while retaining more than 90% of their capacity after long-term use.

Graphene is also used in other battery components. In April 2019, a graphene sponge was discovered that could help stabilise lithium-sulphur batteries. In June 2020, a team of researchers from Brown University found a way to use graphene to double the strength of the ceramic material used to make solid-state lithium-ion batteries.

Accordingly, graphite is an important raw material both for modern battery production and in the development of innovative technologies. In addition, it is included in the list of critical raw materials of the EU – those raw materials that are critically important for strategic sectors of the EU economy and 90% of which are imported from non-European countries.

Ukraine occupies one of the leading places in the world in terms of the number of graphite deposits and discovered reserves. Four graphite-bearing regions are distinguished within the Ukrainian Crystalline Shield: Berdychivskyi, Pobuzkyi, Kryvorizkyi and Pryazovskyi, where about 100 deposits and manifestations of crystalline graphite are located. However, today only two deposits are being developed in Ukraine: Zavallivske deposit is being developed by PJSC “Zavallivskyi Graphite Combine” (South-Eastern section, Kirovohrad region) and LLC “Ukrainian Supply Group” (Zarichna section, Odesa region), and Balakhivske deposit (Southern section, Kirovohrad region) developed by LLC “Development of Pobuzhia”. In general, graphite has been mined in Ukraine since 1931 at the Zavallivskyi graphite plant. It also processes graphite ores for various industries (in particular, for the battery industry).

In 2021, SPYS Ukraine LLC won the auction for the sale of special permits for the use of the subsoil of the Horodniavske section of the Burtyn graphite deposit (Khmelnytskyi region).

In addition, there are still unlicensed deposits and areas in Ukraine where graphite mining can begin.

In order for the extraction and processing of graphite in Ukraine to develop in accordance with the potential, significant investments are needed – both for the development of new industrial sites and for the replacement of outdated technological equipment at those sites that are already working. In 2021, Ukraine exported more than 17,000 tons of graphite to world markets, making it the sixth-largest producer in the world. The full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation forced the suspension of the activities of the main enterprises for the extraction of raw materials, but for the sake of the rapid post-war recovery of Ukraine, everything must be done to restore their activities and start new ones.

Experts of the “New Subsoil Code of Ukraine” Project are preparing several studies for publication, including a review of advanced battery technologies in Ukraine, which analyses the connections and potential value chains between the needs of battery manufacturers in the EU and the corresponding raw materials and production in Ukraine. To ensure you don’t miss a research publication, follow the information resources of the BRDO or subscribe to the monthly digest.

The project is financed by the European Union and implemented by the Consortium consisting of experts from Projekt-Consult (Germany), MinPol (Austria) and the Better Regulation Delivery Office (Ukraine). This publication reflects the position of the Project and does not necessarily coincide with the position of the European Commission.