1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Graphite

GRAPHITE, a mineral species consisting of the element carbon crystallized in the rhombohedral system. Chemically, it is thus identical with the cubic mineral diamond, but between the two there are very wide differences in physical characters. Graphite is black and opaque, whilst diamond is colourless and transparent; it is one of the softest (H=1) of minerals, and diamond the hardest of all; it is a good conductor of electricity, whilst diamond is a bad conductor. The specific gravity is 2·2, that of diamond is 3·5. Further, unlike diamond, it never occurs as distinctly developed crystals, but only as imperfect six-sided plates and scales. There is a perfect cleavage parallel to the surface of the scales, and the cleavage flakes are flexible but not elastic. The material is greasy to the touch, and soils everything with which it comes into contact. The lustre is bright and metallic. In its external characters graphite is thus strikingly similar to molybdenite (q.v.).

The name graphite, given by A. G. Werner in 1789, is from the Greek γράφειν, “to write,” because the mineral is used for making pencils. Earlier names, still in common use, are plumbago and black-lead, but since the mineral contains no lead these names are singularly inappropriate. Plumbago (Lat. plumbum, lead) was originally used for an artificial product obtained from lead ore, and afterwards for the ore (galena) itself; it was confused both with graphite and with molybdenite. The true chemical nature of graphite was determined by K. W. Scheele in 1779.

Graphite occurs mainly in the older crystalline rocks—gneiss, granulite, schist and crystalline limestone—and also sometimes in granite: it is found as isolated scales embedded in these rocks, or as large irregular masses or filling veins. It has also been observed as a product of contact-metamorphism in carbonaceous clay-slates near their contact with granite, and where igneous rocks have been intruded into beds of coal; in these cases the mineral has clearly been derived from organic matter. The graphite found in granite and in veins in gneiss, as well as that contained in meteoric irons, cannot have had such an origin. As an artificial product, graphite is well known as dark lustrous scales in grey pig-iron, and in the “kish” of iron furnaces: it is also produced artificially on a large scale, together with carborundum, in the electric furnace (see below). The graphite veins in the older crystalline rocks are probably akin to metalliferous veins and the material derived from deep-seated sources; the decomposition of metallic carbides by water and the reduction of hydrocarbon vapours have been suggested as possible modes of origin. Such veins often attain a thickness of several feet, and sometimes possess a columnar structure perpendicular to the enclosing walls; they are met with in the crystalline limestones and other Laurentian rocks of New York and Canada, in the gneisses of the Austrian Alps and the granulites of Ceylon. Other localities which have yielded the mineral in large amount are the Alibert mine in Irkutsk, Siberia and the Borrowdale mine in Cumberland. The Santa Maria mines of Sonora, Mexico, probably the richest deposits in the world, supply the American lead pencil manufacturers. The graphite of New York, Pennsylvania and Alabama is “flake” and unsuitable for this purpose.

Graphite is used for the manufacture of pencils, dry lubricants, grate polish, paints, crucibles and for foundry facings. The material as mined usually does not contain more than 20 to 50% of graphite: the ore has therefore to be crushed and the graphite floated off in water from the heavier impurities. Even the purest forms contain a small percentage of volatile matter and ash. The Cumberland graphite, which is especially suitable for pencils, contains about 12% of impurities.  (L. J. S.) 

Artificial Manufacture.—The alteration of carbon at high temperatures into a material resembling graphite has long been known. In 1893 Girard and Street patented a furnace and a process by which this transformation could be effected. Carbon powder compressed into a rod was slowly passed through a tube in which it was subjected to the action of one or more electric arcs. E. G. Acheson, in 1896, patented an application of his carborundum process to graphite manufacture, and in 1899 the International Acheson Graphite Co. was formed, employing electric current from the Niagara Falls. Two procedures are adopted: (1) graphitization of moulded carbons; (2) graphitization of anthracite en masse. The former includes electrodes, lamp carbons, &c. Coke, or some other form of amorphous carbon, is mixed with a little tar, and the required article moulded in a press or by a die. The articles are stacked transversely in a furnace, each being packed in granular coke and covered with carborundum. At first the current is 3000 amperes at 220 volts, increasing to 9000 amperes at 20 volts after 20 hours. In graphitizing en masse large lumps of anthracite are treated in the electric furnace. A soft, unctuous form results on treating carbon with ash or silica in special furnaces, and this gives the so-called “deflocculated” variety when treated with gallotannic acid. These two modifications are valuable lubricants. The massive graphite is very easily machined and is widely used for electrodes, dynamo brushes, lead pencils and the like.

See “Graphite and its Uses,” Bull. Imperial Institute, (1906) p. 353. (1907) p. 70; F. Cirkel, Graphite (Ottawa, 1907).  (W. G. M.)