By Michael Philipps
There was a time when graphite was really only good for making brake pads, or maybe lead pencils, or perhaps a bit of fire retardancy.
But all that changed a few years ago when the electric vehicle (EV) juggernaut started to roll out … and with it came lithium batteries.
The two key parts of a lithium battery are the anode, which is connected to the positive battery terminal, and the cathode, which is connected to the negative terminal.
The cathode is jam-packed with lucrative battery metals such as lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt – all of which have sent the financial world into a frenzy in recent years. Explorers have been desperate to find them, miners have been desperate to mine them and battery makers have been desperate to buy them.
“We now charge into 2024 on a mission to measure the battery performance of these products.”Sarytogan Graphite managing director Sean Gregory
But what of the anode?
Well, there is really only one metal of consequence in the anode and it is graphite. However, the soft, black mineral has not enjoyed the rock-star status of cathode metals such as lithium and nickel to date.
But in any lithium resurgence – and another one will come – graphite will play a critical role because, just like yin is to yang, without graphite there is no lithium battery – or at least not in the traditional sense.
While the lithium price has taken a breather lately and the heat has come out of the battery metals market for now, many critics believe the EV and lithium battery story is only in intermission. Those people are busy looking for who will be the key players in the next act when the inevitable lithium opera comes along again.
And one ASX-listed company that just might take centre stage is Sarytogan Graphite.
Its Kazakhstan graphite project in the central Asian country of Kazakhstan boasts a monster-sized graphite resource with grades that would bring a tear to the eye of existing graphite miners.
And notably, Sarytogan is getting close to tabling a prefeasibility study (PFS) on the project that will put paid to the market speculation about just how much money – and for how long – the company’s impressive-scale graphite resource can produce.
In the space of just 18 months, Sarytogan has delivered a high-grade mineral resource of 229 million tonnes at an incredible 28.9 per cent total graphitic content (TGC). The general rule of thumb in the graphite world is that 10 per cent TGC is nice to have, placing Sarytogan’s 28.9 per cent off the scale.
Drilling results received early last year confirmed the near-surface nature of the deposit, with assays of 26.8m grading a heady 30.4 per cent TGC right from surface – and that hole ended in mineralisation. Additional wide, shallow results show 47.6m at 31.3 per cent TGC, also from surface, including 13.9m going 40.2 per cent TGC, in addition to a 6.8m hit grading 37 per cent in the same hole.
The explorer closed out last year with the production of its first “spheroidized” graphite, which is the final flowsheet element needed to produce uncoated spherical purified graphite (USPG) and ultra-high purity fines (UHPF) for use in lithium-ion batteries and other related markets.
The spheroidization process follows testwork that upgraded the mineralisation to 99.87 per cent using chemical purification techniques and to an incredible 99.998 per cent through thermal purification processes.
Micronised graphite is an essential ingredient for a wide range of industrial products including polymers, adhesives, ceramics and specialty lubricants. Importantly, the product is also the first step in the production of lithium battery anode material (BAM) and a by-product of the spheroidizing process. It can be sold as a conductive additive to battery anodes or for use in a wide range of industrial applications.
The graphite content of an EV is between 30kg and 65kg, with the mineral making up 30 per cent of the lithium-ion battery.
Sarytogan recently engaged GR Engineering Services to progress its PFS into its Kazakhstan project and it will evaluate two main flowsheet options in chemical and thermal purification. Management says the exceptional results in thermal purification and spheroidization have firmly placed it as the favoured option, however the development of the chemical flowsheet option is also continuing in Germany.
The scale of the initial operation has been confirmed as 150,000 tonnes per annum of feed to make 50,000 tonnes per annum of flotation concentrates.
Mining studies show an initial, wait for it … 50-year mine life and that study used only a small proportion of the mineral resource. Sarytogan also wants to go downstream, which is a theme that started to take hold in the lithium world before the current pause.
The company is looking to build a purification and spheroidization plant that will process its own mined product and it is investigating options to acquire industrial land in Karaganda, 190km from the project. Management says that location comes replete with access to low-cost power, water, rail terminals and a skilled workforce and has all of the industrial amenities of a major city.
Importantly, some of those options also offer favourable tax incentives from the Kazakhstan Government.
Sarytogan Graphite managing director Sean Gregory said: “All flowsheet elements to produce USPG and UHPF up to 99.998% purity have now been demonstrated. These results go a long way to allaying doubts about the potential of the giant and exceptionally high-grade Sarytogan Graphite deposit to produce commercial grade graphite products for the rapidly growing lithium-ion battery market. We now charge into 2024 on a mission to measure the battery performance of these products.”
The company’s graphite deposit was first explored during the 1980s, with sampling by trenching and diamond drilling. Its wholly-owned subsidiary Ushtogan then resumed exploration in 2018.
Graphite from the Sarytogan project presents as a premium micro-crystalline product that management says is potentially well suited to a future-facing battery anode product strategy.
China is currently the world’s top graphite producer and exporter. It also refines more than 90 per cent of the world’s graphite into the material that is used in virtually all EV battery anodes.
Sarytogan believes the vulnerability of the battery supply chain is now highly exposed following China’s decision to restrict its graphite product exports from December last year. The company says battery gigafactory developers across Europe, North America, Korea and Japan are now searching for a consistent and reliable supply of critical raw materials – outside of China.
Another benefit for Sarytogan is its location in Kazakhstan, which is an established mining jurisdiction ideally located between the biggest battery manufacturers in Europe and China. Importantly, it has affordable and containerised rail transport available to both regions.
In fact, the country shares many similarities with Western Australia given its semi-arid land area and a mining code based on WA’s own industry standards.
Management says it is also exploring the recently-pegged and highly-prospective 309-square-kilometre Kenesar graphite project in northern Kazakhstan. In June last year, its subsidiary completed a time domain electro-magnetic (TDEM) survey that identified anomalies consistent with graphitic-rich layers under shallow cover.
The discovery prompted a maiden drilling campaign at the operation that has already achieved a few sniffs of graphite and the company is now attempting to zero in on some grade.
People say timing is everything in the mining world and while some may view the current pause in the lithium market as poor timing, it takes time to get monster-sized projects like Sarytogan’s Kazakhstan graphite project off the study table and into production.
And who knows, maybe the stars will align and Sarytogan will be in the vanguard of the inevitable third wave of the lithium market. Now, that would be good timing.
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Source: Thanks smh.com