Costa Rica’s Fortech sells materials for recycling lithium batteries from phones, computers and electric vehicles to make new batteries.
What to do with millions of dead batteries in a world moving to an environmentally sustainable model? Pioneering company recycles this waste in Costa Rica in search of a circular economy future doing.
Mobile phones, laptops, tablets, electric vehicles and solar receivers require lithium batteries to function. The question is what to do when they are gone and become garbage that takes 500 years to decompose.
“Today, we know that garbage doesn’t exist. We know that it’s a renewable resource,” said the general director of Fortech, based in Carthage, 27 kilometers east of San Jose. Guillermo Pereira has been dedicated for 27 years. He told AFP about recycling technology products and lithium batteries for six years.
About 1,500 tons of batteries are retired in Costa Rica each year, says Francisco, the company’s project director.
While multinational mining companies are looking to extract lithium from the salt flats of Chile, Bolivia, or Australia, in Costa Rica, the company is innovating with “urban mines” that recycle minerals.
“It’s about breaking the paradigm,” says Guillermo, 54. With the help of his son Francisco, 25, he created a system to crush depleted batteries, extract and sell the metals that make them up, and create new batteries.
He adds that “the world needs a circular economy,” an economy that recycles and renews existing products for as long as possible to reverse climate change.
Batteries are collected at collection points in shopping malls, electronics stores, or electric car dealerships.
Daniel Rivas, technology manager for batteries at Fortech, told AFP that the aim is to “recover the material so that urban mining can be carried out” and that “we don’t go to mines to do more damage to the environment.” “There is no need. Mining is prohibited by law in Costa Rica.”
The Fortech plant “will make Costa Rica a Latin American pioneer in the recovery of used lithium batteries,” emphasizes the German Development Cooperation Agency GIZ.
Germany’s Aachen University has calculated that by 2028, the amount of discarded batteries will exceed Europe’s recycling capacity.
When the lithium batteries arrive at Fortech’s factory, they are transferred to mechanical belts and sent to shredders to create a variety of metal waste.
When these metals are isolated in the laboratory, they yield “black lumps,” grayish powders composed of cobalt oxide, nickel, manganese and lithium.
“They are a fundamental part of the battery. They are rare metals and costly on the market, which adds to the fact that their disposal through traditional methods pollutes the environment, and it is difficult to recover them. It’s important,” said Henry Prado. , fortech chemist.
That gray powder is broken down to separate the metals, but the company has yet to implement this process.
As such, it sells the resulting material to European industries dedicated to refining the material and making new batteries using the existing lithium in the “black mass”.
Aachen University estimates that by 2035, Europe alone will produce about 1.4 million tonnes of recycled batteries per year.
57% of each recycled battery is “black mass”. The rest is copper, aluminum, plastic or iron that is sold for recycling.
A ton of “black trout” averages $8,000 on the international market.
Consideration for the environment
Not only can new batteries be made from extracts of old batteries, Prado says, but it also eliminates the pollution that would be produced if these materials were disposed of in the environment.
Plus, “that means you don’t have to go to natural resources to extract them,” he adds.
Chemists explain that for every tonne of lithium extracted from battery recycling, a quarter of the CO2 released into the atmosphere from conventional lithium mining is produced.
Dubbed “white gold” or “the oil of the 21st century,” the price of this mineral will climb from $5,700 per tonne in November 2020 to September 2022 due to the rise of electric vehicles in the race to abandon fossil fuels. Soared to $60,500.
But the dark side of lithium recovery is that each extraction plant consumes millions of liters of water per day.
Claus Kruse, head of the Costa Rica-German cooperation agency that supports Fortech’s innovation, points out that Fortech is aiming for a global recycling chain.
“Batteries arriving in Costa Rica from Asia, Europe or the United States are used here, completed their useful life, recycled, their materials recovered and, for example, sent to Europe for the production of new batteries in the logic of a circular economy. ‘, Kruse told AFP.