In today’s market it takes a lot more than a quality deposit for a mining junior to make it big. In today’s graphite industry, it’s nowhere near enough.
For Focus Graphite Inc., an Ottawa based exploratory mining company no amount of technical success seems enough. Started as Focus Metals Inc. in 2001, it established itself as a lead mining junior in Canada in the early 2010’s, signing the first major offtake agreement with a Chinese conglomerate, positioning it at the forefront of a whole new market. That positioned it at the front of a whole new market.
Former Focus Graphite Inc. President and Chief Operating Officer Donald Baxter, P.Eng. spoke on their Focus Graphite’s Li-ion battery-ready graphite material on BNN in May of 2014. Baxter has since ended his relationship with Focus Graphite Inc. (via YouTube)
“We went out too far too fast,” says Chester Burtt, who sits on the board of directors for Focus Graphite.
“We found ourselves out there all alone.”
China today produces almost 70 per cent of the world’s graphite, but with the demand for higher quality deposits for green technologies, many companies both within and outside of China are looking for the next big supplier.
Focus was the chosen one, but the thrill was short lived.
“We failed to realize that the adoption of [electric vehicles] and green technology applications didn’t proceed as fast as we thought it did, and as fast as we were going,” says Burtt.
Today, Focus Graphite finds itself on the other end of the spectrum, struggling without a market in an industry still recovering from the commodity crash,.
Focus stock has been in decline since early 2012, and in early December sat at 0.09 cents a share.
Burtt says things are looking up.
“We’ve come back to center,” he says, describing the company’s move in the spring of 2015 to end their relationship with Donald Baxter, appointed president in September of 2013.
Baxter was reportedly moving the company towards lithium-battery operations, prioritizing the arguably more niche market.
Today, Focus has returned to the original vision of President and CEO Gary Economo, whose experience in the tech industry spans decades. It’s a vision which, Economo says, is all about “being able to provide better solutions for green energy creation, green energy transmission, and energy storage.”
The only thing he says is standing in its way right now, is communication.
“The market doesn’t really understand or realize who we are and what we’re doing,” he says.
The answer: it’s building a mine.
Publishing feasibility studies and results demonstrating the quality of the crystalline flake graphite found at Focus Graphite’s key deposit, the exploration company is shifting to development.
Its key project Lac Knife is located in the Côte Nord region of Québec, and Focus says it is one of the highest-grade flake graphite deposits in the world.
As there is no leading graphite-miner in Canada, exploration companies, including Ottawa neighbor and competitor Northern Graphite Corp., are racing to develop mines on their highest quality graphite deposits.
With industry giant Tesla Motors Inc. planning to build a $5 billion lithium-ion battery “Gigafactory” in Nevada – sourcing its raw materials from North America exclusively- graphite producers in Canada and the United States are in a rat-race to find out who can be the first to supply Tesla.
“We’re the only one at the end of the day that can supply them with what they want, the quality and the purity, in the time frame that they need it, and that’s within 24 months,” says Burtt.
“In reality only a couple of these mines are going to make it to production,” he says. “The rest are just a stock-market story.”
With 100 per cent ownership of Lac Knife, Focus certainly had a good place to start. But work since has been challenging, and the next steps are daunting; finishing permitting, securing funding, and getting its mining license.
The plan is for a low-cost open pit mine, for which it needs $165 million, two-thirds of which is reportedly already committed.
Much of that support comes from the Quebec government, looking to create more jobs in those communities. It’s the last $60 million that’s proving an issue.
“We have people interested in us, but we just have to get the market to play along,” says Burtt.
But that’s not the only door open for Focus.
They’re closely tied to Grafoid Inc., an Ottawa based graphene research, development, and investment company. The two companies share management members, including CEO Economo.
With a signed offtake agreement with Grafoid, the product from Lac Knife can be used to develop and expand applications of graphene, the modern magic mineral.
“It’s the most surprising material that has been discovered in the last 20 years in terms of its properties,” says Michael Hilke, associate professor at McGill University’s Physics Department.
“It’s only 10 years old and there’s already a number of applications either in design or already on the market,” he says.
“That’s very fast.”
Graphene is more than 200 times stronger than steel by weight, conducts heat and electricity and is nearly transparent. Between bio-applications, photo-voltaics, and mechanical applications, the future of graphene today is thought by some to be limitless.
“Focus Graphite’s future is linked to Grafoid,” says Burtt.
Or so Focus hopes.
“We’re visionaries developing our own end markets,” says Economo. “We’re much different than all the other junior exploration companies.”
And maybe, just maybe, that’s enough.