Why biomaterials are key to scaling critical mineral supply chains

CarbonScape’s CCO Vincent Ledoux-Pedailles explores the supply chain bottlenecks hampering the adoption of low-carbon transport, and the role of biomaterials in overcoming these challenges, in this new and exclusive op-ed.

Why biomaterials are key to scaling critical mineral supply chains

Critical minerals are vital to the transition to clean energy and transport. The rapid electrification of these industries means demand for critical minerals such as graphite will grow exponentially, with a global supply deficit of 777,000 tonnes of graphite forecasted by 2030 – and set to worsen by 2040. In fact, this boom is already happening – in 2023, the International Energy Agency (IEA) tracked huge growth in demand for critical minerals, with some increasing by as much as 30%. This will require supply chains to scale up in response.

In the case of graphite – which comprises up to 42% of the volume of an electric vehicle (EV) battery – the current incumbent types used by the transport sector are traditional synthetic, or mined graphite. The vast majority of existing graphite in the market is sourced via long networks and controlled by China. For this reason, the IEA has rated graphite as one of the critical minerals with the highest supply risk scores for geopolitical exposure, underscoring the urgent need to diversify mineral supply chains as we electrify our transport systems.

With the recent export controls enacted by China and the 25% import tariff planned for the US, localising the production of critical minerals like graphite is becoming vital. Alternative materials, or biomaterials, are the only solution if we are to overcome these challenges.

Bottlenecks in the supply of graphite

There are three key issues when it comes to scaling graphite supply chains; overdependence on China; current dependence on finite, fossil-fuel-based resources; and potential price hikes for manufacturers and consumers as a result of these challenges.

By 2030, over 90% of the supply of battery-grade graphite will come from China, according to the IEA. Such overdependence on a single nation is a clear risk for global supplies as it tightens its grip on exports, which could threaten to slow the transition to clean energy. If China’s supply of graphite was removed from the equation, then the global supply would be insufficient to meet even the minimum amount needed globally by 2030.

As countries like the US and China ramp up protectionist measures, the graphite supply chain becomes particularly vulnerable to geopolitics, making the onshoring of production of this essential critical mineral a priority.

Secondly, the limited current production options risk supply outstripping demand. Synthetic graphite is reliant on fossil fuel-based feedstocks and requires high energy inputs, making its costs dependent on significant price fluctuations in these markets. Similarly, mined graphite is fully reliant on natural resources, which will cause price uncertainty as these mines become depleted. Opening new mines is a lengthy, expensive process that can take 12-18 years in the EU and the US. It is not the solution to this urgent problem.

These combined issues could cause the perfect storm for global graphite supply, leading to price hikes and a supply shortfall for manufacturers. As such a crucial component for EV batteries, instability in the graphite supply chain could cause widespread disruption and knock-on effects for the uptake of EVs and the wider decarbonisation of transport. It’s clear there is a desperate need for a localised, secure supply of critical minerals like graphite.

The role of biomaterials

Biomaterials will be central to tackling the long, centralised critical mineral supply chains which are prone to fluctuation and instability. These materials can be manufactured locally, from renewable materials, instead of relying on damaging mining or energy-intensive synthetic options. Crucially, they can use widely available, sustainable feedstocks that are much cheaper and less volatile from a pricing perspective than traditional raw materials.

Companies developing projects outside of China that rely on the same feedstocks and production processes will simply not be able to be cost-competitive. Innovation is key. Utilising biomaterial feedstocks and more energy-efficient processes can empower them to effectively compete against their Chinese counterparts.

Take biographite for example. This biomaterial is manufactured from the byproducts of the forestry industry, such as wood chips, through a process that runs at half the temperatures required to make synthetic graphite.

It is also produced in hours, not weeks. Significantly, biographite can be locally produced anywhere where there is a forestry industry and is a low-cost drop-in replacement for traditional synthetic graphite – favoured by cell manufacturers and OEMs over mined graphite, due to its better performance characteristics. This reduces the risk of supply disruptions and geopolitical dependencies associated with current graphite production.

Unlike other forms of graphite, biographite is created using non-finite resources. This enables greater price certainty and highlights biographite as a renewable source of graphite.

The production of materials like biographite can also be rapidly scaled to meet the growing global demand for high-quality graphite. Establishing a plant takes much less time than a mine, and only needs to be close to a source of forestry by-product – setup can be swift.

Due to the flexibility of locating biographite plants, production can be conveniently located close to EV battery manufacturing hubs, minimising transport and encouraging vertical integration with other stages of the automotive supply chain.

Biographite is an important example of how the onshoring, and manufacture of biomaterials could enable a more localised, secure and integrated supply chain, overcoming bottlenecks in supply.

Vincent Ledoux-Pedailles is the chief commercial officer at CarbonScape

Comments (0)

  1. Patrick Jay says:

    Facinating topic addressing the heart of the problems humanity needs to overcome in addressing climate change. Bio-graphite is really the only fully sustainable choice. The first step converts wood waste to bio-char bmo pyrolysis and makes liquid fuel whilst sequestrating the carbon for energy storage. It is simply ingenious!

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