Upcycled fertiliser producer eyes expansion amid energy crisis

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Thomas Barwick
Image: Getty/Thomas Barwick

Related tags fertilisers Agriculture Upcycling Side-stream utilisation

With question marks about Europe's ability to produce enough fertiliser for its crops, Finland’s Tracegrow, which makes organic certified fertilizers from used batteries, hopes circular economy solutions can prove a vital tool.

The clean-tech start-up has developed unique patented technology which removes micronutrients such as zinc, manganese, sulphur and copper from recycled alkaline batteries and other industrial side streams. These micronutrients are then used to make a range of organic fertilisers approved for sale in the EU, UK, North America and Australia.

Tracegrow claims these fertilisers are proven to reduce carbon emissions compared to mining path of virgin metals and traditional alkaline battery disposal methods and enhance crop productivity compared to traditional methods. Circular economy products, it adds, make use of unused industrial sides streams and potentially hazardous waste of untreated used alkaline batteries.

The fertilisers are already available in 15 markets. Thanks to fresh funds from Nordic Foodtech VC, which invest in early-stage companies aiming to radically renew the food system, Tracegrow is now aiming to expand in new markets.

Giving ‘a new life’ to used products

"We have proven results in the 15 countries we currently operate. Our aim is to start ramping up our operations and this investment is supporting that,"​ Tracegrow CEO Mikko Joensuu told FoodNavigator. 

“Nordic Foodtech VC is bringing insight, knowledge and networks from the food system to our company,”​ he explained. “Together we see great potential in helping primary production in transition towards more ecological and productive future.”

Europe’s fertiliser crisis may assist the company’s plans, he added. Fertilisers need large amounts of energy to be produced. Record-high gas prices – they have surged almost 40% in August and nearly 300% this year on a combination of the war in major grains producer Ukraine and sanctions on fertiliser producer Russia reports Reuters – are therefore forcing the world's largest fertiliser makers to cut output.

Norway-based Yara, which has warned the world now faces an extreme food supply shock, is cutting production of ammonia – needed in the manufacturing of fertiliser. The UK’s CF Fertilisers has also announced its intention to temporarily halt ammonia production at its Billingham Complex. The company has already shuttered one plant in Cheshire.

With farmers now forced to import more expensive fertilizer and ammonia from outside Europe, a clear benefit for Tracegrow is that its products can be grown regionally, said Joensuu. "The current situation is not nice for anybody,"​ he told us. "But it has opened discussion about regional production and [the need for] sustainable products in a circular economy. Since we do produce fertilizers regionally, we're less affected by logistics challenges. And we are not affected by global fuel prices going up as much because we have regional feedstocks. Our raw material is more stable.”​ 

Overall, Tracegrow’s upcycled micronutrients have a had a higher price point than the traditional ones. “But this year the prices are crazy and there's not that much of a difference. The pricing is not the main issue any more it's more about availability this year.”

As well as having EU approval, Tracegrow's products are now also separately confirmed to meet the requirements for organic input in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Croatia. “Our challenge at the moment is not being locally present everywhere,”​ said the CEO. “Our next step is to start scaling up. We want to be more of a regional player in the big countries.”

A ‘ground-breaking’ manufacturing process

Tracegrows' first production plant in Finland has the capacity to process up to 5 million litres annually. It further boasts a ‘super high’ yield of 90% – close to double the efficiency compared to traditional battery disposal methods with a yield of 50%.

The low emission process has benefits such as no wastewater, as the process has closed-loop water system and no flue gases, as there are no industrial chimneys at the plant. There is also minimal energy consumption since the process works at room temperature.

The process brings other advantages, we were told. “Return on investment is really good as the micronutrients we make are in liquid form. When spread on it all goes into the plants and there's extremely high efficacy. On top of that the real beaty is that we process it in a clean way. We have food-value chain safe product.”

Tracegrow is ‘a true circular economy champion’, added Mika Kukkurainen, partner and co-founder of Nordic Foodtech VC. “Reuse of non-renewable natural resources is important for all of us. Tracegrow´s magic sounding technology enables true circular economy and provides remarkable global potential.”

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