Resource potential expands at Alaska graphite prospect
The potential of a unique Western Alaska mineral deposit keeps growing as its developers inch closer to making it a mine.
Stan Foo, chief operating officer of Graphite One Inc., told a gathering of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance on May 9 in Anchorage that infill drilling done last year at the company’s Graphite Creek prospect on the Seward Peninsula helped significantly increase the resource estimates for the deposit.
“We’re very excited about the improvements we made. We increased the resource by about 14 percent last year,” Foo said.
Located on the northern face of the Kigluaik Mountains about 40 miles north of Nome, the Graphite Creek deposit holds measured and indicated resources estimated at nearly 11 million metric tons of ore at an average grade of about 8 percent graphite.
The inferred resource is now at approximately 92 million metric tons of ore at 8 percent graphite, a 29 percent increase from figures released in a June 2017 preliminary economic assessment of the project. Overall, Graphite One now believes the deposit could hold more than 7.3 million metric tons of graphite, according to company filings.
Foo said some areas of the deposit are more than 20 percent graphite and chunks of the mineral are scattered on the ground in the exploration area.
“Some of this graphite is so continuous it looks like an oversized pencil lead when you see the core box (drilling samples),” he said. “It’s a very prominent mineral in the area.”
Formerly Graphite One Resources Inc., the company recently dropped “Resources” so its name would better reflect plans to become an integrated graphite producer and manufacturer, instead of being solely a mine operator, according to Foo.
Small-scale mining took place in the early 1900s but the area has mostly gone undeveloped since.
Graphite One leaders envision a mine that would be much larger than what was done in the area previously, but would still be fairly small by today’s standards, Foo said.
Current plans are for mining about 1 million tonnes of ore per year, which would be distilled at an on-site processing plant into about 60,000 tonnes of 95 percent graphite concentrate. The rough concentrate would then be shipped to a purification plant the company hopes to develop somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where it would be refined into several types of more than 99 percent pure graphite concentrate.
Graphite One partnered with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority in 2017 to analyze the prospect of siting the purification plant in Alaska; however, access to lower-cost power in the Pacific Northwest drove the decision to site the plant further south, according to Foo.
Overall development cost for the mine and processing plant was pegged at $233 million in a 2017 preliminary economic analysis of the project. The purification-manufacturing plant would cost another $130 million.
Full development would also require about 270 employees at the mine, according to the PEA.
The mine itself would be a relatively small open-pit operation, Foo said, and the ore would be processed using basic flotation methods.
Other Graphite One officials have characterized the prospective mine as an “oversized gravel pit,” as there is no need for the chemical leaching processes commonly found at metal mines.
The Graphite Creek deposit contains four types of graphite — a rarity — which led Graphite One to coin the term “STAX” graphite for its spherical, thin flake, aggregate flake, and expanded flake graphite structures, Foo said.
The various types of graphite each have characteristics that make them suitable for different applications, but demand for the mineral these days mostly comes from lithium ion battery makers for use in electric vehicles and other high-stress battery applications.
“These are all naturally occurring qualities of this deposit, which makes it very unique and the (U.S. Geological Survey) will be studying our deposit this year to determine exactly why this occurrence has these qualities and can we find others in the United States,” he said.
He also noted that lithium ion batteries have 10 to 30 times more graphite than lithium.
“We like to think they should be called graphite ion batteries. You talk to the cobalt guys; they’d like them to be called cobalt ion,” Foo quipped.
In addition to being a primary component for modern energy storage, graphite has long been a popular dry mechanical lubricant. Its resistance to heat also makes it useful in high-temperature applications and its strength and flexibility make it the go-to material for fishing rods and many other uses — in addition to pencils.
If developed, Graphite Creek would be the sole domestic source of graphite. China currently controls most of the world’s supply and graphite is on the U.S. Geological Survey’s critical minerals list as a strategically important material for which the country relies on imports.
This year, the company will continue its resource evaluation and environmental baseline data collection work while also conducting a pre-feasibility study to evaluate the viability of the project in more detail, Foo said.
He added that environmental permitting could be “very straightforward” and suggested the project could warrant a simpler environmental assessment — avoiding the rigorous environmental impact statement process — depending on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ determination on the likely impacts to wetlands.
If it all goes as planned, Foo said Graphite One could be turning ground in about four years.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].