Mining company finds high-quality graphite suitable for batteries in Greenland
Mining operations have been going on in Greenland to a greater or lesser extent since 1850.
So, Greenroc Mining building a new mine on the island of Amitsoq in Southwest Greenland, 20 km northeast of the town of Nanortalik, is far from a ground-breaking idea.
In fact, from 1914 to 1922, there was a mine there that produced 5,300 tons of graphite. And yes, it is the kind of graphite used in pencils.
But today, graphite has taken on a completely different meaning worldwide.
Modern lithium-ion batteries are actually filled with graphite.
If you look at the weight of the battery cell alone, graphite makes up 22 percent of it.
This should be compared with copper (17 percent), nickel (15 percent), and lithium (2 percent).
Rounded up, two kilograms of graphite are required to produce a 1 kWh battery.
And although graphite is widely disseminated across the Earth, there are few places where it is found in such high concentrations as is the case in South Greenland.
This is also the reason why Greenroc Mining is now investigating whether there is a basis for resuming production, says Stefan Bernstein, CEO of the company, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange.
He conducted his PhD research in Greenland and has also worked with mineral deposits in Greenland for more than 30 years, i.a. as state geologist in the GEUS institute.
“Fundamentally, our society is based on raw materials, and do I believe that we should recycle as much as possible. But if we look specifically at raw materials for batteries and the enormous increase in production we see today, there simply aren’t enough raw materials to feed back into the production loop yet. Therefore, we’ll have to find new raw materials where it financially makes the most sense,” he says.
Independence from China
Today, global production of graphite is just over one million tonnes per year.
Approximately 150,000 tonnes of it were used for electric cars in 2020—the rest was used in steel industry, lubricants, and of course pencils.
But already in 2025, batteries for electric cars will require 1.1 million tons of graphite per year, and that number could reach 15 million tons per year in 2030.
One of the important points in the argument for a graphite mine in Greenland is that battery manufacturers are currently extremely dependent on raw materials from China. This also applies to graphite.
So even though a large number of investors set aside billions of euros for battery production in Europe and the USA to ensure independence from producers in Asia in particular, according to Stefan Bernstein, this does not change the fact that China has a firm foothold in the graphite market.
“If we look at raw materials such as nickel, copper, and lithium, there is a global market after all, but when it comes to graphite, China accounts for over 60 percent of global production. But—just as importantly—100 percent of the processed graphite we use in Europe for battery production comes from China,” he says.
Therefore, according to Greenroc Mining, it makes sense to look at the graphite deposit on Amitsoq.
It contains a lot of graphite, and the graphite is of the finest quality.
This was also the reason why a relatively primitive mine was in operation in the area at the beginning of the last century.
The graphite ore could actually be mined directly at the surface, where it protruded from the rock.
But with new core samples, Greenroc Mining has tried to determine the size of the deposit and the quality of the graphite.
“The preliminary studies show that the quality is very high. We have taken 700 kg of samples from the old mine, which have been sent to Germany. There, it needs to go through the processes needed to transform it from small flakes, which natural graphite consists of, to the spherical shape that is used in the further processing into battery material,” Stefan Bernstein says.
He expects that a significantly larger sample of graphite ore will be retrieved in 2023 in order to build a prototype plant for processing at the mine in Greenland.
If the whole process goes as the mining company hopes, actual production will be able to start at the beginning of 2027.
Mining affects the environment
There is, of course, also the crucial question of environmental impact in Greenland.
If we look back at the history, mining projects in the Arctic have not always had environmental considerations as a focal point. This applies, for example, to the Maamorilik lead and zinc mining site, which was in operation from 1973 to 1990.
In the years that followed, elevated levels of lead and zinc were found in seawater, sediments, seaweed, mussels, and fish.
The Ivittuut cryolite mine, which was in operation from 1854 to 1987, caused the fjord to become contaminated with lead and zinc as well.
“It will be of the utmost importance that the mining takes place in a responsible manner in relation to the environment. We can follow the examples of countries like Sweden and Finland, and it is of course a responsibility that we take on,” Stefan Bernstein says but also acknowledges that mining will always affect the local landscape, even if the graphite mine in this case is located underground.
Concretely, he expects that 400,000 tonnes of ore will be mined annually when the mine becomes fully operational. Of this, pure graphite will make up approximately 80,000 tonnes, which means that 320,000 tonnes of material—also called tailings—must be deposited somewhere:
“A very large part of the coarse material will be able to be returned to the mine, but we also have to recognize that some of the fine-grained slurry material will probably have to be deposited in the area in a so-called tailings pond with a membrane at the bottom,” Stefan Bernstein says.
He emphasizes that the mining company is highly focused on producing raw materials in a responsible way, both when it comes to the environmental and social costs.
But the issue of mining and the environment has also become muddied over recent years, he believes.
“Fundamentally, I’m not keen on terms such as ‘sustainable mining’. It implies that we can mine raw materials without consequences for the surrounding nature. But we can talk about ‘responsible mining’, and we have good examples of such mining in our neighbouring Scandinavian countries. At the same time, Greenland has up-to-date and clear legislation regarding the exploitation of mineral raw materials, so the development of this project towards an exploitation permit will take place in cooperation with the Greenlandic authorities,” he says.