Alabama Graphite refinery on the way
Westwater breaks ground on lithium-ion battery material plant Metal Tech News - April 20, 2022
Last updated 4/23/2022 at 5:34am
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Congressman Mike Rogers joined other state and local government officials and business leaders during the groundbreaking ceremony at the site of a $202 million processing facility being developed by Westwater Resources Inc. that will produce the high-quality graphite needed for the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles.
Being built at Kellyton, which is about 50 miles north of Montgomery, this graphite refinery will transform Alabama into a major hub in America's EV supply chain.
"Alabama, which is home to Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and Mazda, is among the top four states in the nation in automobile production," said Gov. Ivey. "This plant will make Alabama an even bigger player in the fast-growing electric vehicle sector."
This is because graphite is the single largest ingredient in the batteries powering most EVs on the road today. While it is difficult to determine the average amount of graphite that goes into the average EV battery at a time when automakers are continually bringing on new models, roughly 120 pounds of this battery ingredient is needed for a standard range Tesla Model 3 and about 500 lb is required for the GMC Hummer EV.
The graphite that goes into these EV batteries must be upgraded to a form known as coated spherical graphite, or active anode material.
To create this specialized lithium battery ingredient, mined graphite is rolled into potato-shaped spheres and coated in a hard carbon shell that is thermally treated. The spherical shape allows the graphite to be more efficiently packed into battery cells, while the coating extends the graphite's lifetime capacity.
Currently, China dominates both the mining and upgrading of graphite. During 2021, the Middle Kingdom supplied approximately 82% of the world's mined graphite and produced nearly 100% of the coated spherical graphite being used by global EV and battery makers.
The graphite plant, which is being built by Westwater subsidiary Alabama Graphite Products, will use a proprietary process to purify raw graphite and refine it into battery-grade anode material. Westwater says this process is safer and more environmentally friendly than the hydrofluoric acid-based process commonly used in China and elsewhere, which requires more water and produces more potentially hazardous byproducts.
The initial phase of this processing plant, which is slated for completion by mid-2023, is designed to produce 7,500 metric tons of refined graphite, enough for more than 400,000 EVs per year.
"The construction of this plant is the result of a lot of work, cooperation, planning and vision by numerous people over a number of years," said Chad Potter, President and CEO of Westwater Resources and Alabama Graphite Products. "I want to thank our incredible team, which envisioned and laid the foundation for what is the first graphite plant of its kind anywhere, as well as our state and local partners who made this day possible."
Last year, Gov. Ivey signed an incentive package that will provide Alabama Graphite Products with $29.9 million in jobs and tax credits over 15 years, and $925,000 in job training and employee recruitment incentives for a facility.
"The cooperation and assistance we have received – from tax incentives to utilities to workforce development – has been incredible. We would not be here today without their support," Potter added.
Once in operation, the initial phase of the graphite plant is expected to provide good-paying jobs to at least 100 people in the region, a priority for the Alabama policymakers that attended the groundbreaking.
"Having the first graphite processing of its kind in Coosa County is a real honor and I believe an indication of what's to come," Congressman Rogers said. "This project will spur more economic development in the region and more jobs for the people here."
In the beginning, the feedstock for the Alabama Graphite refinery will be imported, but Westwater intends to develop a mine at its Coosa project in the famed Alabama Graphite Belt by 2028.
According to a 2015 estimate, Coosa hosts 78.5 million metric tons of indicated resource averaging 2.39% (1.9 million metric tons) graphite.
Roskill, a global natural resources analyst, forecasts that the global lithium-ion battery sector will need roughly 1.25 million metric tons of mined graphite per year by 2030, which is about six times the amount that went into lithium batteries in 2020. Currently, there are no commercial-scale graphite mines in the U.S.
This growing demand and lack of American supplies will drive demand for new graphite sources such as Coosa, which would offer a local supply of graphite for the Alabama refinery and a new source of jobs for residents of Coosa County.
"As our investment of millions of dollars and our commitment to invest even more indicate, we are firmly committed to Alabama and this community, and we look forward to being here for many years to come," said Potter.