GUNSAN: Workers at a rural South Korean factory are busy extracting some of the world’s most coveted metals, used in the batteries that power electric cars.
But they’re not digging in the ground or refining ore. Instead, they are sorting through a pile of lithium-ion batteries from old mobile phones and laptops.
As China’s aggressive hunt for overseas cobalt and lithium for electric vehicles pushes up prices and causes a global shortage of the key metals, South Korea is increasingly turning to such “urban mining” to recover cobalt, lithium and other scarce metals from electronic waste.
In 2016, the most recent year from which data is available, 19.6 trillion won ($18.38 billion) worth of metals were extracted from recycled materials, meeting roughly 22 percent of the country’s total metal demand, according to a report by the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology.
SungEel HiTech is South Korea’s largest battery recycler. A decade ago, the company was at a crossroads as plasma TV panels, from which it extracted gold and silver, began to phase out.
Now it is part of a supply chain for some of the world’s major battery makers, including Samsung and LG.
Yi Kang-myung, SungEel HiTech’s president, said the shortage of mined metals had led his company to boost capacity by threefold this year. It plans to list in 2020.
“We are receiving phone calls from many who are showing interest,” Yi said in an interview at the plant.
“Major automobile companies are interested in our products,: he said, without naming the automakers. He added that battery companies and POSCO, a South Korean steelmaker, are interested in getting into the recycling business themselves.
The scarcity is unlikely to abate anytime soon, as China, the world’s biggest user of metals, snaps up mineral resources in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chile.