ALABAMA: First State to Process Graphite, Critical for Electric Cars

MONTGOMERY, Alabama, June 22, 2021 (ENS) – Westwater Resources Inc. plans to build a first-of-its-kind advanced graphite processing plant in Alabama, placing the state at the forefront in the production of an essential material in batteries for electrical vehicles, electronics and other green energy products and equipment, Governor Kay Ivey announced Tuesday.

A Colorado company, Westwater said its Alabama Graphite Products LLC subsidiary plans to make an initial investment of at least $80 million to build the graphite processing plant in Kellyton, near Alexander City. A second phase of the project will push the total investment to $124 million.

Graphite is a key component in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, as well as a conductivity enhancer for all types of batteries, including the common lead-acid batteries in gasoline-powered vehicles.

The U.S. Government in 2018 placed natural graphite on its Critical Minerals List of materials essential to the national economy and national security of the country. The United States currently has no domestic natural graphite production and is 100 percent reliant on imports. China produces 70 percent of the world’s supply.

Westwater says that as a mineral resources company it is “committed to exploring and developing materials for clean, sustainable energy production.” Construction will start later this year, with the graphite processing plant scheduled to be operating by the end of 2022.

“This plant not only will make Alabama the U.S. leader in graphite production, the go-to place for this important resource in battery manufacturing, it also will elevate our standing even more as a major player in the fast-growing electric vehicle sector,” Governor Ivey said.

“We’re home to four major auto plants, and the ability to source precious materials in state for the lithium-ion batteries used in electric and hybrid vehicles will be a big plus in attracting other manufacturing jobs to the state,” she said.

Governor Ivey joined Westwater President and CEO Chris Jones and local leaders in a ceremony at the State Capitol on Tuesday to announce the project.

“I want to thank Governor Ivey, Secretary Canfield, other state leaders and the many local officials in Alexander City and Coosa County who worked with us to make this vision come true,” Jones said. “The people of Alabama have been very welcoming since day one, and their cooperation has been integral in putting together the many pieces needed for us to build this innovative plant in Alabama.”

The state is investing nearly $31 million to complete this arrangement, which is expected to employ at least 100 full-time, permanent workers at good wages. An agreement signed by the governor will provide Alabama Graphite Products jobs and tax credits totaling an estimated $29.9 million over 15 years. And the state’s primary workforce development agency, is providing Alabama Graphite Products $925,000 in job-training and employee recruitment incentives.

“This is a great project for Alabama for many reasons,” Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield said. “It complements perfectly our auto industry and what these automakers are doing with EVs here in Alabama. Mercedes and Hyundai have announced major expansion projects specifically for the manufacturing of electric vehicles.”

Local incentives for the project, estimated to total $4.7 million, include tax abatements and use of 80 acres at Lake Martin Industrial Park at no cost. A bridge will be built to provide additional access to the industrial park.

As part of the project, water and wastewater treatment will be provided by Alexander City. Alabama Graphite has entered into a public-private partnership to upgrade Alexander City’s wastewater treatment system with a contribution of $400,000 and prepayment of $100,000 in treatment fees.

In addition to making Alabama home to the first large-scale producer of refined graphite in the United States, Alabama Graphite plans to mine raw graphite in western Coosa County in what was known as the Alabama Graphite Belt. Westwater Resources acquired mineral rights to 42,000 acres in 2018 and expects to begin mining operations by 2028.

Alabama Graphite’s processing plant will produce 7,500 tons of battery-grade graphite a year initially, eventually expanding to 15,000. The battery in an average EV needs about 175-200 pounds of graphite.

Ford’s new electric F-150 truck, the Lightning, is expected to need roughly 450 pounds of graphite per truck.

Westwater’s Jones pointed out that the U.S. government has declared graphite to be critical to the nation’s economy and national security.

“All of the graphite used and needed in the United States, including by America’s auto industry, is imported,” he said. “Most of it is from China, where media have reported both worker and environmental issues. Domestic production of graphite reduces our dependence on foreign sources.”

“Even though the raw graphite we will process into battery-grade material will be imported initially, none of it will be from China,” said Jones. “We have secured agreements from other providers.”

Alabama Graphite will use a proprietary process to purify the raw graphite and refine it into battery grade purity. That process is safer and more environmentally friendly and sustainable than the hydrofluoric acid-based process commonly used in China and elsewhere that use more water and produces more environmentally-damaging byproducts.

“One of our core values is safety. We’re protective of our workers, the community and the environment,” Jones said. “Whether it’s mining or processing graphite, our company is committed to doing it in an environmentally safe, sustainable manner. The biggest virtue of electric vehicles and other battery-powered products is they reduce carbon emissions and are better for the environment. Producing the key materials for those batteries, we believe, can and should be done in an environmentally responsible way as well.”

Featured image: A chunk of Alabama’s natural graphite (Photo courtesy Alabama Graphite Corporation)

Continue Reading