In the cover photo from left to right: Timo Jauhiainen CCO, Pirja Piiponniemi Executive assistant and Ilkka Suhonen Marketing Manager.
The challenge of feeding the world
To meet the needs of the world’s growing population the agricultural industry is now under an increasing strain to grow more and more food with a finite amount of land. The nutrients needed for the growth of these crops are gradually depleted from the soil with each harvest, requiring us to feed our crops with the use of more and more fertilizers.
However, the problem with the increasing use of fertilizers is that the production of conventional fertilisers causes vast amounts of emissions. Most of these emissions are caused by mining and refining that are normally needed to turn virgin metals into plant available nutrients. Agriculture alone accounts for almost a fifth of global CO2 emissions, which means that it is essential that we develop new, more sustainable solutions for agriculture.
Turning waste into a solution
To solve this problem, Tracegrow looked at another problem, the problem of waste, as a solution. Each year, there are over 10 billion batteries manufactured worldwide creating a significant source of waste from this single-use product. In Finland, around half of the alkaline batteries used each year are sent for recycling, meaning that the other half still end up in landfills. Even a single alkaline battery ending up in water systems can pollute up to 167 000L of groundwater. In the right hands, however, this waste can also be a valuable resource. Around 60% of each battery is made of zinc and manganese, both valuable metals needed by most crops.
Coming from a farming background, the people behind Tracegrow saw the potential of this raw material as a source of micronutrients and decided to take on the challenge of purifying it. This idea was then developed by Tracegrow’s CEO Mikko Joensuu with Plant Manager Joni Rahunen and Product Manager Lasse Rautio and received financial backing from Petri Huhtala, one of Tracegrow’s owners. The final breakthrough was made possible by Tracegrow’s collaboration with Oulu University and the research team led by Ulla Lassi. As the ground-breaking result, Tracegrow was the first company in the world to develop a patented process for extracting and purifying the zinc and manganese from the recycled batteries into a pure, low-emission fertilizer.
This patented process is the most efficient in the world, managing to capture over 90% of the zinc and manganese from the battery waste. The process also does not produce any harmful emissions into the air or any waste waters, as all the water used in the purification process is incorporated into the final product. The harmful, but valuable heavy metals from the battery raw material are thoroughly filtered and collected during the process and are sent to be used as raw materials for the metal industry. The resulting product, ZM-Grow, is a pure zinc-manganese-sulphate solution that meets the strictest requirements of EC fertilizer legislation and is approved for use in organic farming in the EU, UK, and Australia. As recognition for our efforts for promoting sustainability and circular economy, Tracegrow was awarded with the Circwaste-award in 2020 by the Finnish Environment Institute.
But what is Circular Economy in the first place?
With the development of new and efficient purification methods for different waste fractions such as batteries we can reduce the need for mined materials and return already used, valuable raw materials back into circulation. This, in essence, is what Circular Economy is all about.
As time goes on and as rich deposits run out, the quality of available deposits of usable metals will decline and begin to drive up the cost of mining. As an example, it has been estimated that due to high consumption the current zinc reserves will be depleted in 17 years. Because of this, it is becoming more and more sensible to find new sources for these raw materials.
Around the world there are practically endless sources of resource-rich waste, such as battery waste, tailings, and other industrial waste streams that could be purified using Tracegrow’s process and transformed into new raw materials for agriculture as well as other industries. Tracegrow is now mapping new waste streams that could be used as raw materials in our process to make new low-emission fertilisers and low-CO2 raw materials.
How does Tracegrow fit into the global landscape?
Backed by our innovative technology, Tracegrow aspires to become a global player in the low-emission fertiliser and waste treatment market with production footprint in the Americas, Europe and Asia planned in our roadmap.
Our overall goal is to help clean up the world of waste and cut down agricultural emissions while we do it. Where we stand apart from other fertiliser manufacturers, is that we produce all our products out of recycled raw materials. This means we can provide farmers with cost-efficient, low-emission alternatives that enable them to add value to their crops and help clean up the environment while they do so.
About being selected to the EIT FAN HEL program
“We’ve had very good experiences from prior endeavours and projects by EIT and we’re excited about being included in this program and for the chance to connect with the different start-ups as well as the EIT Partner companies. It is a great chance for us to draw upon the know-how and experience from these various partners and experts brought together by the programme.”
-Mikko Joensuu, CEO
Thoughts about the program so far?
“EIT FAN HEL Program offers Tracegrow a unique opportunity to network with a great variety of companies and organisations. Getting connected with the right people opens up new doors for making a truly positive impact on the agriculture of tomorrow.
The programme has also helped us to really focus our own thinking and our objectives for the future. The combined knowledge brought in by EIT is just the right stuff for helping companies meet their goals.”
-Pirja Piiponniemi, Tracegrow project manager for the EIT-programme
Written by Ilkka Suhonen, Marketing manager.