How Green Mineral's 'chlorella' technology could transform battery rec…

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How Green Mineral's 'chlorella' technology could transform battery recycling

Jung Kwang-hwan, CEO of Green Mineral, a Seoul-based battery recycling startup, poses for a photo after a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the company's headquarters in Geumcheon District, southern Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Jung Kwang-hwan, CEO of Green Mineral, a Seoul-based battery recycling startup, poses for a photo after a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the company's headquarters in Geumcheon District, southern Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

  

Game Changer

 
A tsunami of EV batteries is expected to retire in less than a decade, and the world should be prepared to recycle the pricey lithium that comprises them.
 
But what’s the point of buying EVs in the first place if the recycling process harms the environment?
  

Chlorella could be the answer when it comes to both the environment and costs, says Jung Kwang-hwan, CEO of Green Mineral, a Seoul-based battery recycling startup.
 
“Green Mineral’s chlorella technology can extract lithium from used EV batteries without using chemical solvents, which is fatal to the environment,” Jung said in a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily.
 
Jung added that the approach is “very cost-effective,” costing just one-fifth of existing recycling methods. 

 
Lithium is a “license to print money,” in Elon Musk’s words — it is a critical mineral in the making of EV batteries that requires exorbitant costs to refine. As sources of the material are limited, recycling batteries to harvest lithium is an essential process in which many global companies are rushing to invest.
 
There will be around 560,000 scrap EVs, including hybrids, in 2025, which will grow to around 43 million units in 2040, according to SNE Research. 
 
Accordingly, the volume of used batteries, projected to stay at 786,000 tons in 2025, will jump to 5 million tons, with a value of $174.1 billion, in 2040.
 
Founded in June 2021, Green Mineral secured a total of 5 billion won ($3.6 million) in Series A funding from global investors, including Postech Holdings and GS Group last year. It has received partnership requests from various big companies including Posco Group.
 
While leading the startup, Jung did not stop his career as a life sciences professor at Sogang University, where he also studied as an undergraduate. Jung earned his master’s degree in life sciences at KAIST and doctorate degrees in microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Texas.
 
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Jung to discuss his discovery of chlorella as an ingredient to extract lithium and his future business strategies at Green Mineral’s headquarters in Geumcheon District, southern Seoul.
 
The following are edited excerpts from the interview.
  

Jung Kwang-hwan, CEO of Green Mineral, a Seoul-based battery recycling startup, talks about his business plan during a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at its headquarters in Geumcheon District, southern Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Jung Kwang-hwan, CEO of Green Mineral, a Seoul-based battery recycling startup, talks about his business plan during a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at its headquarters in Geumcheon District, southern Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Q. You are a life sciences professor. What inspired you to establish a startup related to EV battery materials?



More than a decade ago, when the reactor accident in Fukushima resulted in the release of radioactive material, a professor told me to research microalgae that could remove radioactive material from the atmosphere. At the time, I purchased as many microalgae as possible worldwide and conducted tests — and discovered that chlorella has the capability.
 
I applied the ecology to lithium and did a test on seawater, which has an average of 0.17 parts per million (ppm) of lithium. It failed because the lithium content was too low.
 
However, I discovered that liquid waste from used EV batteries has, on average, 2,000 ppm of lithium, which is high enough to apply chlorella. I did a test on it, and it worked.
  

Extracting lithium from used EV batteries using chlorella — the logic sounds so complex. Can you explain the technology in detail?

Chlorella has the unique ability to convert metal ions, such as lithium, into carbonates. It’s similar to the process of shellfish creating shells; when calcium enters the cell membrane of shellfish and reacts with carbon dioxide, it undergoes a transformation into calcium carbonate, which solidifies and is released.
 
Chlorella exhibits a similar reaction with lithium, leading to biomineralization, wherein cells form minerals. When adding chlorella to the lithium-containing liquid waste, it thrives and makes the waste into crystals to take it out. We then collect the lithium carbonate from there. 

Jung Kwang-hwan, CEO of Green Mineral, a Seoul-based battery recycling startup, poses for a photo after a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the company's headquarters in Geumcheon District, southern Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Jung Kwang-hwan, CEO of Green Mineral, a Seoul-based battery recycling startup, poses for a photo after a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the company's headquarters in Geumcheon District, southern Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
EV batteries normally consist of 28 kilograms [61.7 pounds] of lithium, and, of them, 20 kilograms can be retrieved. Of the remainder, excluding metals such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, around 10 tons of lithium liquid waste with 2000 ppm of nickel content are left. To extract lithium from those liquids, we need 2 kilograms of corolla.
  

What are the advantages of using chlorella?

 
First of all, chlorella is an environmentally friendly way of recycling batteries. The existing recycling ways being used by many big companies involve a chemical treatment by processing a black power to extract metals. For instance, SungEel HiTech was ordered to shutter its Hungary recycling plant by the Hungarian government for causing harm to the environment.
 
Secondly, it’s surprisingly cost-effective. Compared to the traditional way of using chemical solvents, chlorella costs one-fifth of the total expense.
 
Countries are imposing stricter regulations on ways of recycling batteries, which will overflow in some five years. The European governments already set a policy that companies must use 6 percent recycled lithium when making batteries in 2031. That percentage goes up by 12 percent in 2036 — and this means half of existing EV batteries must be recycled.
 
Battery recycling is a must. It’s time to get serious with recycling lithium-ion batteries. Both environmentally and cost-wise, we see a lot of potential here.
  

How far along is the development process?

 
Development is finished. We have 14 related patents, as well, in major countries like Korea, the United States, China and Japan. We already confirmed the efficacy. The matter now is scaling it up.
Green Mineral secured 5 billion won of Series A funding from various companies including Postech Holdings and GS. Of them, 2 billion won was spent to build a pilot plant for further research. 
 
Many companies have already suggested business partnerships, including Postech Holdings. They suggested we recycle the lithium-containing liquid waste coming from its lithium carbonate factory, which is currently under construction in Yulchon, South Jeolla. They are willing to give us the entire liquid, so that we can extract lithium carbonate from there.
 
But their capacity is very large compared to ours, so we are doing more research to scale our technology up to find all the variables and make the process safer. If we can prove our technology, we will set up a large-scale plant next to Posco’s plant in South Jeolla.
  

So, what’s your short-term plan?

 
We are eyeing Series B funding for as early as the end of this year. With that, we aim to start construction of the plant next year and start operations in 2026. It cost around 10 billion won to build the massive plant, but assuming that things are fully operational, we can earn 10 billion won in just one and half years.
  

Can the chlorella method be applied to other materials as well, such as cobalt and nickel?

Yes, but demand is low at the time for those other materials. Recycling cobalt and nickel is inexpensive at the moment compared to lithium.
 
But those processes also harm the environment, and, ultimately, we will need cheaper methods. Chlorella can be used then. We own the patents for those materials as well.
  

Would you like to appeal for the government’s help?

Laws always don’t keep up with innovative technology. Battery recycling technologies are new and innovative, but the government’s deregulation process is always slow though they all collect used batteries. But one good news here is that the Korean government recently revised a law that allows private companies to purchase used batteries from the government, which opens wide opportunities to the public.
  

Lastly, what’s your ultimate goal?

Green Mineral owns an innovative technology that can bring a paradigm shift in the world’s battery recycling market. It’s eco-friendly and cost-effective. This technology must grow, for the benefit of the earth, and all of us. 
 
 

BY SARAH CHEA [chea.sarah@joongang.co.kr] 

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