The mineral graphite, as with diamond and fullerene, is one of the allotropes of carbon. It was named by Abraham Gottlob Werner in 1789 from the Greek γραφειν (graphein): "to draw/write", for its use in pencils, where it is commonly called lead, as distinguished from the actual metallic element lead. Unlike diamond, graphite is an electrical conductor, a semimetal, and can be used, for instance, in the electrodes of an arc lamp. Graphite holds the distinction of being the most stable form of carbon under standard conditions. Therefore, it is used in thermochemistry as the standard state for defining the heat of formation of carbon compounds. Graphite may be considered the highest grade of coal, just above anthracite and alternatively called meta-anthracite, although it is not normally used as fuel because it is hard to ignite.
There are three principal types of natural graphite, each occurring in different types of ore deposit: (1) Crystalline flake graphite (or flake graphite for short) occurs as isolated, flat, plate-like particles with hexagonal edges if unbroken and when broken the edges can be irregular or angular; (2) Amorphous graphite occurs as fine particles and is the result of thermal metamorphism of coal, the last stage of coalification, and is sometimes called meta-anthracite. Very fine flake graphite is sometimes called amorphous in the trade; (3) Lump graphite (also called vein graphite) occurs in fissure veins or fractures and appears as massive platy intergrowths of fibrous or acicular crystalline aggregates, and is probably hydrothermal in origin.
Graphite has various other characteristics. Thin flakes are flexible but inelastic, the mineral can leave black marks on hands and paper, it conducts electricity, and displays superlubricity. Its best field indicators are softness, luster, density and streak.
According to the USGS, world production of natural graphite in 2006 was 1.03 million tonnes and in 2005 was 1.04 million tonnes (revised), of which the following major exporters produced: China produced 720,000 tonnes in both 2006 and 2005, Brazil 75,600 tonnes in 2006 and 75,515 tonnes in 2005 (revised), Canada 28,000 tonnes in both years, and Mexico (amorphous) 12,500 tonnes in 2006 and 12,357 tonnes in 2005 (revised). In addition, there are two specialist producers: Sri Lanka produced 3,200 tonnes in 2006 and 3,000 tonnes in 2005 of lump or vein graphite, and Madagascar produced 15,000 tonnes in both years, a large portion of it "crucible grade" or very large flake graphite. Some other producers produce very small amounts of "crucible grade".
According to the USGS, U.S. (synthetic) graphite electrode production in 2006 was 132,000 tonnes valued at $495 million and in 2005 was 146,000 tonnes valued at $391 million, and high-modulus graphite (carbon) fiber production in 2006 was 8,160 tonnes valued at $172 million and in 2005 was 7,020 tonnes valued at $134 million.
Graphite can conduct electricity due to the vast electron delocalization within the carbon layers. These valence electrons are free to move, so are able to conduct electricity. However, the electricity is only conducted within the plane of the layers.
Graphite and graphite powder are valued in industrial applications for its self-lubricating and dry lubricating properties. There is a common belief that graphite's lubricating properties are solely due to the loose interlamellar coupling between sheets in the structure. However, it has been shown that in a vacuum environment (such as in technologies for use in space), graphite is a very poor lubricant. This observation led to the discovery that the lubrication is due to the presence of fluids between the layers, such as air and water, which are naturally adsorbed from the environment. This molecular property is unlike other layered, dry lubricants such as molybdenum disulfide. Recent studies suggest that an effect called superlubricity can also account for graphite's lubricating properties. The use of graphite is limited by its tendency to facilitate pitting corrosion in some stainless steels, and to promote galvanic corrosion between dissimilar metals (due to its electrical conductivity). It is also corrosive to aluminium in presence of moisture. For this reason, the US Air Force banned its use as a lubricant in aluminium aircraft , and discouraged its use in aluminium-containing automatic weapons . Even graphite pencil marks on aluminium parts may facilitate corrosion . Another high-temperature lubricant, hexagonal boron nitride, has the same molecular structure as graphite. It is sometimes called white graphite, due to its similar properties.
When a large number of crystallographic defects binds these planes together, graphite loses its lubrication properties and becomes what is known as pyrolytic carbon. This material is useful for blood-contacting implants such as prosthetic heart valves. It is also highly diamagnetic, thus it will float in mid-air above a strong magnet.
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. Natural and crystalline graphites are not often used in pure form as structural materials, due to their shear-planes, brittleness and inconsistent mechanical properties.
Some time before 1565 (some sources say as early as 1500), an enormous deposit of graphite was discovered on the approach to Grey Knotts from the hamlet of Seathwaite near Borrowdale parish, Cumbria, England, which the locals found very useful for marking sheep. This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid, and could easily be sawn into sticks. This remains the only deposit of graphite found in this solid form.
According to the USGS, U.S. consumption of natural graphite in 2005-06 averaged 41,850 tonnes in end uses such as refractories, steelmaking, expanded graphite, brake linings, and foundry facings-lubricants. GAN (Graphite Advocate News) import-export statistics for 2006 and 2007 indicate the consumption will continue at that level unless steelmaking carbon raiser takes a drastic drop.
Graphene, which occurs naturally in graphite, is the strongest substance known to man, according to a study released in August 2008 by Columbia University. However, the process of separating it from graphite will require some technological development before it is economical enough to be used in industrial processes.
Synthetic graphite also finds 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.
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 gunpowder is coated in graphite to prevent the buildup of static charge.
Graphite also has the interesting property that, under certain conditions, it can serve as a form of armor against nuclear weapons. While there is no practical military application for this, graphite is a common material proposed for the pusher plate of a nuclear pulse rocket; a space vehicle that propels itself by the ejecting nuclear explosives to the rear and detonating them.
Graphite usually needs beneficiation, although thick-bedded amorphous graphite and vein graphite is almost always beneficiated, if beneficiated at all, by laborers hand-picking out the pieces of gangue (rock) and hand-screening the product. The great majority of world flake graphite production is crushed and ground if necessary and beneficiated by flotation. Treating graphite by flotation encounters one big difficulty: graphite is very soft and "marks" (coats) the particles of gangue. This makes the "marked" gangue particles float off with the graphite to yield a very impure concentrate. There are two ways of obtaining a saleable concentrate or product: regrinding and floating it again and again (up to seven times) to obtain a purer and purer concentrate, or by leaching (dissolving) the gangue with hydrofluoric acid (for a silicate gangue) or hydrochloric acid (for a carbonate gangue).
In the milling process, the incoming graphite products and concentrates can be ground before being classified (sized or screened), with the coarser flake size fractions (above 8 mesh, 8 mesh to 20 mesh, 20 mesh to 50 mesh) carefully preserved, and then the carbon contents are determined. Then some standard blends can be prepared from the different fractions, each with a certain flake size distribution and carbon content. Custom blends can also be made for individual customers who want a certain flake size distribution and carbon content. If flake size is unimportant, the concentrate can be ground more freely. Typical final products include a fine powder for use as a slurry in oil drilling; in zirconium silicate, sodium silicate and isopropyl alcohol coatings for foundry molds; and a carbon raiser in the steel industry (Synthetic graphite powder and powdered petroleum coke can also be used as carbon raiser)(Earth Metrics, 1989). Rough graphite is typically classified, ground, and packaged at a graphite mill; often the more complex formulations are also mixed and packaged at the mill facility. Environmental impacts from graphite mills consist of air pollution including fine particulate exposure of workers and also soil contamination from powder spillages leading to heavy metals contaminations of soil. Dust masks are normally worn by workers during the production process to avoid worker exposure to the fine airborne graphite and zircon silicate.
A high-quality flake graphite product that closely resembles natural flake graphite can be made from steelmaking kish. Kish is a large-volume near-molten waste skimmed from the molten iron feed to a basic oxygen furnace, and is a mix of graphite (precipitated out of the supersaturated iron), lime-rich slag, and some iron. The iron is recycled on site, so what is left is a mixture of graphite and slag. The best recovery process uses hydraulic classification (Which utilizes a flow of water to separate minerals by specific gravity: graphite is light and settles nearly last.) to get a 70% graphite rough concentrate. Leaching this concentrate with hydrochloric acid gives a 95% graphite product with a flake size ranging from 10 mesh down.
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