Meet the junior miners jostling to supply the next miracle material, graphene

China dominates graphite production but its export restrictions create opportunity for Canadian upstarts

core sample of graphite for manufacturing graphene

Graphene can be made from high-grade flake graphite. This core sample comes from Alaska. (Dean Besserer/Graphite One Resources/AP)

Samsung, Fujitsu and Apple are rushing to file patents on it. Scientists constantly dream up new uses for it. Now junior mining firms want in on the material—first created in a lab a decade ago—known as graphene.

Graphene is graphite that’s formed into a layer so thin it’s considered to have only two dimensions. It’s also extraordinarily strong, flexible and the best known conductor of heat and electricity. Proposed applications include bendable electronics and solar panels, and even condoms.

Chart showing the proportion of graphite production that comes from China, 68%China currently dominates the world’s graphite production and has imposed export restrictions. That’s spurred mining startups, several based in Canada, to develop new graphite mines. Northern Graphite (TSXV: NGC), Mason Graphite (TSXV: LLG), Fortune Graphite, and the privately held Ontario Graphite and Eagle Graphite all have mines in various stages of development.

Others have gone further to beat the graphene rush. Last year Lomiko Metals (TSXV: LMR), based in Surrey, B.C., partnered with New York–based Graphene Laboratories to create a graphene supply chain starting at Lomiko’s Quatre Milles property northwest of Montreal. Their joint venture, Graphene 3D Lab, is exploring the use of the material in three-dimensional printing.

Likewise, Ottawa’s Focus Graphite (TSXV: FMS) has a 19% stake in Grafoid, which is building a graphene production facility in a former aluminum factory in Kingston, Ont., that will use crystalline flake graphite from Focus’s Lac Knife deposit in eastern Quebec. The firm is close to commercializing products for graphene lithium-ion batteries and in the infrastructural sector with graphene-infused polymers and plastics, says spokesman Andrew Hutton.

It’s possible none of graphene’s proposed uses will pan out, cautions Marta Cerruti, a professor of mining and materials engineering at McGill University. “Years ago there was this huge hype about carbon nanotubes, a very similar material, and then nothing happened to them,” she says. Nonetheless, Cerruti thinks graphene may have more potential. “I do think it could be used in lithium-ion batteries and for a mechanical strengthening material, or for composite polymers and stuff like that, especially if it can be made cheaply,” she says.

The caveat for investors is these miners carry dual risks: that their properties can’t be profitably mined and that the technology fails. The opportunity to create a proprietary process for making functional graphene is what keeps them hoping.