SYLACAUGA -- Flake graphite has more than 180 applications, with use in lithium ion batteries easily the most significant going forward.
Unfortunately, almost all of the world’s flake graphite comes from China. But a Canadian Company, with offices in Sylacauga and 42,000 acres of property in Coosa County, is looking to change all that.
Alabama Graphite Company Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Alabama Graphite Corps., a Canadian listed company that “is focused on becoming this century’s first graphite-producing mine in the United States and a leading ‘Made in USA’ supplier of specialty coated spherical graphite (or CSPG) for the burgeoning green-energy lithium-ion battery markets,” according to the company’s website.
According to Executive Vice President Tyler Dinwoodie, the company has already met several preliminary landmarks on the way to production in Coosa County.
“First you need a proven resource, no matter what you’re mining, whether it’s gold or silver or graphite or uranium,” Dinwoodie said. “You need to be able to demonstrate the amount and the concentration. The next step is a preliminary economic assessment, which is an overview that shows the scope and the mine life of the project. In this case, the mine life is 27 years.”
This document, which is submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Canadian regulators, was completed in the fall. The next step involves raising funds, and then production can begin perhaps eight to 10 months after that.
A major Alabama-based entity is conducting a feasibility study and has expressed interest in providing financial backing but is not far enough along for Dinwoodie to be any more specific.
Dinwoodie estimates the project will eventually employ 60 to 90 people and generate $583 million in state and federal taxes over the course of 27 years. Work will begin in a small area in the middle of the acquired acres in Coosa County.
“It will be a small operation,” he said. “For instance, Imerys in Sylacauga is a massive operation compared to what we’ll be doing. There is enough graphite in Coosa County to last for centuries, and we won’t even be mining 1 percent of the land package. In 27 years, we may use up 10 percent of the resource. There’s no concern about running out.”
The surface rights are owned by a timber company, and the only problems reported from the site so far involve the occasional wild boar or venomous snake.
The process will be fairly straightforward.
“The rock here is soft, breakable, you can grind it in your hands,” Dinwoodie continued. “There’s no drilling, no blasting, no crushing. You just need two excavators, a truck and a century old process for flotation. I’ve never dealt with anything this simple.”
The excavated dirt is put into water, and the graphite floats to the top. It is then skimmed, dried and polished, leaving a 96.7 percent pure product. This product is then trucked 19 miles up the road to Rockford, where it is refined further.
The graphite is micronized (reduced in size to 10 to 25 microns), spheronized (reshaped) and carbon coated for 99.95 percent purity or higher. This is battery grade. The concentrate then undergoes a low temperature, halogen gas based thermal purification process.
Dinwoodie and CEO Don Baxter “have never been so passionate, so excited, so optimistic about a project,” according to the former. “This is important. It doesn’t just matter to Alabama and to Coosa County.”
Right now, all battery-ready graphite is imported from China, where hydrophloric acid is used in the purification process.
“Here, you’re not even supposed to touch hydrophloric acid,” he said. “In China, they use it and then just dump it into yards or water supplies. It’s an environmental nightmare. What we’re doing here is sustainable.”
And while there are numerous uses for purified graphite, only one represents the future.
“It’s not brake linings, it’s not refractory liners, it not oils and lubricants. It’s lithium ion batteries…This is a has-to-happen project…(It’s) a big component of being a green energy supply chain producer,” Dinwoodie said.
The batteries can be used to power electric vehicles or for electrical storage for people using solar panels.
“You can store the electricity to use later or upload it to the grid,” Dinwoodie explained.
But there will likely be an even bigger end user.
“In January, we reported preliminary electro-chemical test results, and we got a call from the Department of Defense the same day,” he said. “They said they didn’t know anything like this was in the U.S. They had been having to deal with China, but they are mandated to source American whenever possible … so graphite from the ground in Coosa County could end up protecting American soldiers in the field.
“An American soldier typically has 20 pieces of wearable technology on him, and there at least 25 other pieces of technology that would rely on these batteries.”
Baxter is another one of the company’s greatest assets, Dinwoodie added.
“He’s a phenomenal CEO, and the most experienced graphite mining engineer outside of China…And he loves Alabama, the (weather), the infrastructure, the business climate,” Dinwoodie said. “Alabama is open for business.”
He added that the project will eventually bring much needed employment to the area as well. The project already has the support of Alabama’s senate and congressional delegation (they will be meeting with Sen. Jeff Sessions’ successor in March), as well as from Gov. Robert Bentley down to members of the Coosa County Commission.
“The Sylacauga chamber supports any development in the area or the region,” Sylacauga Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mike Landers said. “If there is an opportunity for growth in Coosa County, especially with a customer base like the U.S. government, we will lend our influence in Montgomery or Washington, D.C. however we can. This will be a substantial operation.”