Graphite Applications

Two types of graphite are useful in modern applications:

Natural graphite
Synthetic graphite

Natural Graphite


Natural graphite is mostly consumed for refractories, steelmaking, expanded graphite, brake linings, foundry facings and lubricants. Graphene, which occurs naturally in graphite, has unique physical properties and might be one of the strongest substances known; however, the process of separating it from graphite will require some technological development before it is economically feasible to use it in industrial processes.


Head gasket Graphite engine head gaskets

This end-use begins before 1900 with the graphite crucible used to hold molten metal; this is now a minor part of refractories. In the mid-1980s, the carbon-magnesite brick became important, and a bit later the alumina-graphite shape. Currently the order of importance is alumina-graphite shapes, carbon-magnesite brick, monolithics (gunning and ramming mixes), and then crucibles.

Crucibles began using very large flake graphite, and carbon-magnesite brick requiring not quite so large flake graphite; for these and others there is now much more flexibility in size of flake required, and amorphous graphite is no longer restricted to low-end refractories. Alumina-graphite shapes are used as continuous casting ware, such as nozzles and troughs, to convey the molten steel from ladle to mold, and carbon magnesite bricks line steel converters and electric arc furnaces to withstand extreme temperatures. Graphite Blocks are also used in parts of blast furnace linings where the high thermal conductivity of the graphite is critical. High-purity monolithics are often used as a continuous furnace lining instead of the carbon-magnesite bricks.

The US and European refractories industry had a crisis in 2000-2003, with an indifferent market for steel and a declining refractory consumption per tonne of steel underlying firm buyouts and many plant closings. Many of the plant closings resulted from the acquisition of Harbison-Walker Refractories by RHI AG some plants had their equipment auctioned off. Since much of the lost capacity was for carbon-magnesite brick, graphite consumption within refractories area moved towards alumina-graphite shapes and monolithics, and away from the brick. The major source of carbon-magnesite brick is now imports from China. Almost all of the above refractories are used to make steel and account for 75% of refractory consumption; the rest is used by a variety of industries, such as cement.

According to the USGS, US natural graphite consumption in refractories was 11,000 tonnes in 2006.


Packing Yarn Graphite packing yarn

Natural graphite in this end use mostly goes into carbon raising in molten steel, although it can be used to lubricate the dies used to extrude hot steel. Supplying carbon raisers is very competitive, therefore subject to cut-throat pricing from alternatives such as synthetic graphite powder, petroleum coke, and other forms of carbon. A carbon raiser is added to increase the carbon content of the steel to the specified level. An estimate based on USGS US graphite consumption statistics indicates that 10,500 tonnes were used in this fashion in 2005.

Expanded graphite

Expanded graphite is made by immersing natural flake graphite in a bath of chromic acid, then concentrated sulfuric acid, which forces the crystal lattice planes apart, thus expanding the graphite. The expanded graphite can be used to make graphite foil or used directly as "hot top" compound to insulate molten metal in a ladle or red-hot steel ingots and decrease heat loss, or as firestops fitted around a fire door or in sheet metal collars surrounding plastic pipe (during a fire, the graphite expands and chars to resist fire penetration and spread), or to make high-performance gasket material for high-temperature use. After being made into graphite foil, the foil is machined and assembled into the bipolar plates in fuel cells. The foil is made into heat sinks for laptop computers which keeps them cool while saving weight, and is made into a foil laminate that can be used in valve packings or made into gaskets. Old-style packings are now a minor member of this grouping: fine flake graphite in oils or greases for uses requiring heat resistance. A GAN estimate of current US natural graphite consumption in this end use is 7,500 tonnes.

Intercalated graphite

Structure of CaC6 Graphite forms intercalation compounds with some metals and small molecules. In these compounds, the host molecule or atom gets "sandwiched" between the graphite layers, resulting in compounds with variable stoichiometry. A prominent example of an intercalation compound is potassium graphite, denoted by the formula KC8. Graphite intercalation compounds are superconductors. The highest transition temperature (by June 2009) Tc = 11.5 K is achieved in CaC6 and it further increases under applied pressure (15.1 K at 8 GPa).

Brake linings

Brake lining Graphite brake disc lining

Natural amorphous and fine flake graphite are used in brake linings or brake shoes for heavier (nonautomotive) vehicles, and became important with the need to substitute for asbestos. This use has been important for quite some time, but nonasbestos organic (NAO) compositions are beginning to cost graphite market share. A brake-lining industry shake-out with some plant closings has not helped either, nor has an indifferent automotive market. According to the USGS, US natural graphite consumption in brake linings was 6,510 tonnes in 2005.

Foundry facings and lubricants

A foundry facing mold wash is a water-based paint of amorphous or fine flake graphite. Painting the inside of a mold with it and letting it dry leaves a fine graphite coat that will ease separation of the object cast after the hot metal has cooled. Graphite lubricants are specialty items for use at very high or very low temperatures, as forging die lubricant, an anti-seize agent, a gear lubricant for mining machinery, and to lubricate locks. Having low-grit graphite, or even better no-grit graphite (ultra-high purity), is highly desirable. It can be used as a dry powder, in water or oil, or as colloidal graphite (a permanent suspension in a liquid). An estimate based on USGS graphite consumption statistics indicates that 2,200 tonnes was used in this fashion in 2005.

Other uses

Natural graphite has found uses as the marking material ("lead") in common pencils, in zinc-carbon batteries, in electric motor brushes, and various specialized applications.

Synthetic Graphite

Invention of synthetic graphite

Synthetic graphite was invented/discovered by Edward Goodrich Acheson (1856 - 1931). In the mid-1890s, Acheson discovered that overheating carborundum (also called silicon carbide or SiC, which he also invented/discovered) produced almost pure graphite. While studying the effects of high temperature on carborundum, he had found that silicon vaporizes at about 4,150� C (7,500� F), leaving behind graphitic carbon. This graphite was another major discovery for him, and it became extremely valuable and helpful as a lubricant. The Acheson Graphite Co. was formed in 1899. In 1928 this company was merged with National Carbon Co (now Union Carbide). Acheson also developed a variety of colloidal graphite products including Oildag and Aquadag. These were later manufactured by the Acheson Colloids Co. (now Acheson Industries).


These electrodes carry the electricity that melts scrap iron and steel (and sometimes direct-reduced iron: DRI) in electric arc furnaces, the vast majority of steel furnaces. They are made from petroleum coke after it is mixed with coal tar pitch, extruded and shaped, then baked to carbonize the binder (pitch), and then graphitized by heating it to temperatures approaching 3000�C, which converts carbon to graphite. They can vary in size up to 11 ft. long and 30 in. in diameter. An increasing proportion of global steel is made using electric arc furnaces, and the electric arc furnace itself is getting more efficient and making more steel per tonne of electrode. An estimate based on USGS data indicates that graphite electrode consumption was 197,000 tonnes in 2005.

Powder and scrap

The powder is made by heating powdered petroleum coke above the temperature of graphitization, sometimes with minor modifications. The graphite scrap comes from pieces of unusable electrode material (in the manufacturing stage or after use) and lathe turnings, usually after crushing and sizing. Most synthetic graphite powder goes to carbon raising in steel (competing with natural graphite), with some used in batteries and brake linings. According to the USGS, US synthetic graphite powder and scrap production was 95,000 tonnes in 2001 (latest data).

Neutron moderator

Special grades of synthetic graphite also find use as a matrix and neutron moderator within nuclear reactors. Its low neutron cross-section also recommends it for use in proposed fusion reactors. Care must be taken that reactor-grade graphite is free of neutron absorbing materials such as boron, widely used as the seed electrode in commercial graphite deposition systems-this caused the failure of the Germans' World War II graphite-based nuclear reactors. Since they could not isolate the difficulty they were forced to use far more expensive heavy water moderators. Graphite used for nuclear reactors is often referred to as nuclear graphite.

Other uses

Graphite (carbon) fiber and carbon nanotubes are also used in carbon fiber reinforced plastics, and in heat-resistant composites such as reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC). Commercial structures made from carbon fiber graphite composites include fishing rods, golf club shafts, bicycle frames, sports car body panels, the fuselage of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and pool cue sticks and have been successfully employed in reinforced concrete, The mechanical properties of carbon fiber graphite-reinforced plastic composites and grey cast iron are strongly influenced by the role of graphite in these materials. In this context, the term "(100%) graphite" is often loosely used to refer to a pure mixture of carbon reinforcement and resin, while the term "composite" is used for composite materials with additional ingredients.

Graphite has been used in at least three radar absorbent materials. It was mixed with rubber in Sumpf and Schornsteinfeger, which were used on U-boat snorkels to reduce their radar cross section. It was also used in tiles on early F-117 Nighthawks. Modern smokeless powder is coated in graphite to prevent the buildup of static charge.