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Economy

America’s Trade War With China Spills Into Clean Energy

What began as a dispute over world-leading computer chips is now rocking the auto and clean energy industries.

Xi Jinping on a hunk of graphite.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons

America and China’s increasingly acrimonious rivalry over national security is now spilling over into clean energy.

On Friday, China imposed export restrictions on three high-purity forms of graphite, a mineral that is essential to making semiconductors, electronics, and — most importantly — electric vehicle batteries. Under the new rules, Chinese companies cannot export any of these especially valuable types of graphite without getting a waiver from the government.

For now, these new restrictions exist in a curious quantum state: They could be a big deal, permanently reshaping the global clean-energy economy, or they could quickly fizzle into a bureaucratic wrinkle.

Yet the potential importance of these new rules to the EV industry is difficult to overstate. Graphite makes up about 20% of the mass of an EV battery, and at least two-thirds of the world’s graphite comes from China.

What’s most ominous might be the fact that the rules exist at all. The new restrictions show that America and China’s growing trade battle over “dual-use technologies” — tools and materials that can be used by both civilians and the military — is proving difficult to contain. What began as a dispute over world-leading computer chips is now rocking the auto and clean energy industries.

As far as critical minerals go, graphite is relatively simple: It is just a crystal of carbon atoms. It can be mined from the Earth or produced synthetically by processing fossil fuels. Humanity goes through hundreds of tons of low-grade graphite every year — it is in pencils and chemicals, for instance — but high-grade graphite is crucial for two uses. First, it is used in the equipment needed to make semiconductors, including those used for AI and other uses. Second, it makes up the anodes — or the negative electrodes — of lithium-ion batteries, the type of batteries that power smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles.

Right now, China makes most of the world’s graphite. It also processes much of that graphite, grinding it into flakes 1/10th the size of a human hair and rounding them into tiny spheres. Graphite then must be processed to incredible purity — 99.5% or higher — to be used in batteries or semiconductors; only exceptionally pure graphite has the chemical properties needed for these technologies. It is the export of these very pure forms of graphite that China has now restricted.

The new rules follow restrictions on the export of gallium and germanium, which are crucial for electronics and EVs, that China imposed in June.

“In the wider critical minerals space, the talking point is that China dominates. Which is true. But it’s especially true for graphite,” Morgan Bazilian, the director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, told me.

Graphite makes up about 20% of the mass of a lithium-ion battery. There is, in all likelihood, several grams of graphite in the device you are using right now. The odds are high that it originated in a Chinese factory.

The new limits came in the context of a widening United States-China trade war. A few days earlier, the United States had closed loopholes and tightened its restrictions on the kind of semiconductors that can be exported to China. Those American restrictions were first imposed last year; they aimed to preserve America’s technological supremacy by blocking China’s ability to produce the most advanced forms of semiconductors domestically. The restrictions limited what kinds of technology and intellectual property could be shared with China; they also blocked U.S. citizens or green-card holders from working on technology that could be shared with the Chinese.

There is some disagreement about whether these rules are working; China has announced production of a 7-nanometer chip, which puts it close to the state of the art. But in any case, China’s new limits on graphite export don’t seem to be an in-kind response to the American semiconductor restrictions, and it’s unclear whether the graphite restrictions will matter as much for the rest of the world. The restrictions could temporarily spike short-term prices, according to Alex Turnbull, an investor who has proposed, along with the think tank Employ America, that the U.S. maintain a strategic lithium reserve. But in the long-term, graphite producers in the West should be able to increase production and fill the gap.

Bazilian said that these new restrictions have hit at a lucky time. Graphite prices have fallen this year due to an excess of Chinese capacity and softer demand for electric vehicles than expected.

The good news is that unlike with other minerals, a number of American, Indian, and Japanese firms have already begun manufacturing graphite. Many of these firms saw their share prices rise on Monday.

In a way, the restrictions were a blessing for non-Chinese graphite suppliers, Turnbull said. Many companies would have struggled to scale up in the same market as the Chinese firms, which regularly produce more graphite than they need. (It also helps that — unlike semiconductors — graphite does not rely on proprietary or especially advanced technology; its risks are primarily financial, rather than technical.)

That said, there are still reasons why a rapid scale up might not happen, Bazilian said. “This is really a place where China dominates, and the other parties that have, like, 10% market share are places like Mozambique,” he said.

And Mozambique’s mines have suffered from what are sometimes euphemistically referred to as “security issues.” Last year, the Balama mine in the country’s Cabo Delgado was attacked by Islamist terrorists, who beheaded two security guards. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack.

America’s efforts to develop a rival graphite supply chain depend on that mine. Last year, the Department of Energy issued a $102 million loan to Syrah Vidalia, a new Louisiana facility that will process graphite from the Mozambique mine and manufacture battery anodes.

“The critical minerals discussion is not a homogenous discussion. Each of these supply chains is different — it’s not easy to make big analogies to the oil market or something,” Bazilian said. “People love to say, Rare earths aren’t rare, but that’s not nearly as profound as people think. All of these minerals are abundant on Earth, but it’s not easy to find economically viable deposits of these ores.”

As long as the global graphite market remained constrained, he added, then Chinese firms would continue to have the easiest, cheapest access to it — which means that they will likely continue their dominance of producing anodes, a crucial midstream part of the EV battery supply chain.

Climate advocates have long pointed out that the technologies needed to fight climate change — batteries, renewables, electric vehicles, and more — have profound national-security implications. They are, like semiconductors, the industries of the future. It’s little surprise that battles over the former have been dragged into fights over the latter.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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