‘Urban mining’ in South Korea saves rare battery materials

‘Urban mining’ in South Korea saves rare battery materials

Workers at a rural South Korean factory in Gunsan are busy extracting some of the world’s most coveted metals, used in the batteries that power electric cars. They’re not digging in the ground or refining ore, however. 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 are available, metals worth 19.6 trillion won (U.S. $18.38 billion) 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.

The scarcity is unlikely to abate anytime soon, as China, the world’s biggest user of metals, snaps up mineral resources in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Chile. Park Jai-koo, an urban mining expert at Hanyang University in Seoul, said electronic waste recycling can help mitigate high prices and limit reliance on outside sources for rare metals. “South Korea needs to secure resources, but mostly all of them are imported,” Park said. “Urban mining is more likely to become a way to go.”  Reuters