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A graphite processing plant in Alabama could help the U.S. rely less on China

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Biden administration wants to build up a battery industry here in the U.S. because batteries are key to a green energy future. Think electric cars. One key mineral in batteries is graphite, like in pencils. NPR's Sally Helm has this story about what it takes to build an industry from scratch.

SALLY HELM, BYLINE: Most of the battery-ready graphite in the world is not produced in the U.S. It comes from China, and the U.S. wants to change that - rely less on China for batteries and the stuff that goes into them. And that's going to hinge on companies like Westwater Resources. They're building a graphite processing plant in Coosa County, Ala. It's still under construction, but some of the pieces are in place. I got a tour from the company's chief commercial officer, Jon Jacobs.

JON JACOBS: So what you're looking at here is the world's largest blender.

HELM: We're looking down into this big, circular machine. It has blades that'll mill the graphite to a smaller size because graphite can't just come out of the ground and go straight into a battery. It has to be coated and reshaped.

JACOBS: Right now we have 10 spheroidizing machines installed. And so this would be the next step.

HELM: Spheroidizing. To work in batteries, graphite particles need to be rounded, kind of potato-shaped. You can think of this as problem No. 1 for getting a battery industry off the ground in the U.S. - the potato problem. Chinese companies already know how to reshape graphite. But when Westwater Resources first tried it, their particles were too flat.

JACOBS: The feedback months later, through our battery partners, would be, make it more of a sphere. So we'd go back to them again, and they would do it again.

HELM: Do you get sick of hearing that - like, more of a sphere?

JACOBS: Yeah, you do. Yeah. Believe me. Yeah. It just never seems to be spheroidal enough to...

HELM: He says they've now figured it out. But if the U.S. wants to make batteries here, this is the kind of technical know-how that stands in the way. Another thing a new industry needs is new infrastructure. In this case, to get up and running, the plant needed a new sewer pipe for their wastewater. That's problem No. 2 - the pipe. And I heard about that from Woody Baird. He's the mayor of nearby Alexander City, Alex City to locals. The graphite plant would mean good-paying jobs for people in town, and so Mayor Baird took out a big loan to build the pipe.

WOODY BAIRD: We had to go under all these driveways, bore, dig, plant grass. We administered all that.

HELM: He had hoped the plant would be operating by now, but it isn't, which means Westwater isn't yet paying Alex City to use the sewer pipe. That has Mayor Baird upset.

BAIRD: You know, I want my money. I want to pay this damn loan.

HELM: This brings us to problem No. 3 for building a new battery industry in the U.S. - money. Back at the plant, Jon Jacobs told me they still need $150 million to finish construction from investors or lenders. They recently got their first sales agreement. That should help. And they got a big boost from the government. In May, the Biden administration announced tariffs on some Chinese imports, including graphite. That'll make Chinese graphite more expensive, which helps Westwater.

JACOBS: Just because I make it in the great USA, that is not sufficient reason for someone to buy my stuff instead of China. It has to be a savings to them.

HELM: Jacobs hopes the plant will get up and running soon, but it's been a hard road. And if the U.S. wants to build up its battery industry, a lot of companies are going to have to go on a similar journey - solving potato problems and pipe problems - and maybe, in the end, getting there with a little government help. Sally Helm, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF L.A.B SONG, "TAKE IT AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sally Helm