If it is to be developed into a mine, the biggest deposit of graphite in the United States needs a bigger production project than developers originally envisioned, said an official with the company seeking to commercialize the site. To be cost effective, he said, development needs to meet the soaring demand for the material that is used in lithium-ion batteries and other high-tech products.
Mike Schaffner, senior vice president for Graphite One, said the Vancouver-based company trying to develop the Graphite Creek deposit 38 miles north of Nome is now trying to figure out how to design a big enough project at the remote Bering Strait site to be economically feasible.
A previous design concept for production, as described in a prefeasibility study issued in 2022, envisioned production of 53,000 tons per year of graphite concentrate, Schaffner said in a presentation Wednesday at the annual conference of the Alaska Miners Association in Anchorage.
“They said, ‘Well, that’s great. But we need 20 of you.’ So it wasn’t big enough to really pique their interest,” he said.
Now the company is trying to design a plan for producing 183,000 tons of concentrate per year, he said. Graphite One’s goal for 2023 has been to figure out a way for the project to mill about 10,000 tons of ore a day, about the same volume as is milled at the Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue, from the previously envisioned level of 2,500 tons a day, he said.
Helping achieve that goal is a recent $37.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, Schaffner said.
Once that grant was announced in July, Graphite One stepped up its summer exploration work at the site, he said. Graphite One was able to drill 57 wellbores during the past summer’s field season, he said. That is considerably more than in past years; the project completed three to 22 wellbores annually between 2012 and 2022, according to his presentation.
Schaffner said Graphite One intends to complete its full feasibility study to consider those boosted production levels by the end of 2024. That is in accordance with the Department of Defense grant conditions, he said. Applications for permits would follow, he said.
Graphite, commonly known as a material used in pencils, is a soft, crystalline form of carbon that is deemed by federal officials to be a critical mineral.
There has been no U.S. graphite production for decades, making the nation entirely dependent on imports. China currently produces about 63% of the world’s natural graphite and nearly all of the graphite used in lithium-ion batteries, according to the nonprofit Institute for Energy Research.
The Graphite Creek deposit is, by far, the largest known graphite deposit in the nation, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Graphite One’s project has generated excitement among many Alaska officials, including the state’s three-member congressional delegation. The regional Bering Straits Native Corp. has also endorsed the project and is investing money in it. However, there are some concerns in the two villages closest to the mine site, Teller and Brevig Mission, about potential negative impacts to traditional food-gathering sites and practices.
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.