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This illustration shows intercalation of lithium ions (green) in a graphite anode. Image by Argonne National Laboratory.


Major Graphite Research Project Aims To Reshape Domestic Electric Vehicle & Battery Market

Graphite has recently been classified as a “critical need” mineral for national security by the US government due to its key role in EV batteries and other significant technologies. Regrettably, around 80% of the present supply is sourced overseas, mostly from China.

A big endeavor is currently in progress to create a new “Made in America” graphite sector. Carbon technology business Ramaco Carbon is now working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest science and energy labs, to create innovative, large-scale techniques for producing graphite from coal as a component of this endeavor.

The study on graphite is part of a larger research collaboration that Ramaco and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have been engaged in over the past three years. This collaboration has looked into a variety of alternative uses for coal to create higher-value carbon materials and products.

The new two-year project, which Ramaco Carbon and ORNL are funding jointly through a DOE Fossil Energy & Carbon Management Program Field Work Proposal, will concentrate on scaling up a procedure that has already demonstrated success at the bench scale at ORNL. Ramaco will be in charge of a number of tasks, such as using specialized machinery at its iCAM research facility in Wyoming to prepare feedstocks for the process using coal from the mines of its parent business, the publicly traded metallurgical coal company Ramaco Resources, Inc. (NASDAQ: METC).

“Ramaco has worked with ORNL on other projects that have ties to the EV industry, such as the light-weighting of vehicles using coal-derived carbon fiber,” said James Dietz, one of Ramaco’s primary researchers on the project. “If successful, this project has the potential to be extremely impactful, and turbocharge the United States EV industry.”

The research is primarily concerned with harnessing carbon, the essential component of synthetic graphite and a variety of other products. Currently, the majority of this carbon comes from more expensive petroleum and related petrochemical feedstocks. The objective of this collaborative research effort is to expand on prior work from both organizations and create a novel technique that employs coal’s carbon as a feedstock instead.

Researchers at ORNL are putting up a technoeconomic analysis that indicates the novel technique will be less expensive than the petroleum-based alternative.

“Since its founding, ORNL has excelled in delivering translational science. This collaboration between the laboratory and Ramaco is a great example of how basic and applied research work together to accelerate science-driven technology developments,” said Associate Laboratory Director for Energy Science and Technology Dr. Xin Sun.

The team’s primary goal in this project is to scale up and commercialize a technology that was created with support from the DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences program, which funds basic study to lay the groundwork for future energy innovations.

“We try not to oversell research in early stages, but if it is successful, then the ability to use lower cost coal as the feedstock to make synthetic graphite could be transformational,” said Randall Atkins, Chairman and CEO of Ramaco. “The multi-year ongoing public-private partnership with ORNL has allowed us to make some unique and substantial technology advances in that direction. Our long-term goal has been to reinvent the use of America’s most abundant natural resource to make it a solution to some of our most pressing needs for the global energy transition. This will help reshape both the energy markets and the environment for the better.”

Carbon fiber composite materials can be used to make aircraft and spacecraft parts, golf club shafts, bicycle frames, fishing rods, sailboat masts, just to name a few.

Graphite can be used for all kinds of things, such as pencils, lubricants, arc lamps, batteries, brushes for electric motors, and cores of nuclear reactors — to name just a few things.

If successful, it could drive prices down for many things, including the price of EVs to some extent. I guess one question is can it be done without further impacting the environment in a negative way?

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