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GUNSAN, South Korea (Reuters) - Workers at a rural South Korean factory are busy extracting some of the world’s most coveted metals, used in the batteries that power electric cars.

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An employee sorts out old batteries at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

But they’re not digging in the ground or refining ore. 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 is available, 19.6 trillion won ($18.38 billion) worth of metals 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.

SungEel HiTech is South Korea’s largest battery recycler. A decade ago, the company was at a crossroads as plasma TV panels, from which it extracted gold and silver, began to phase out.

Now it is part of a supply chain for some of the world’s major battery makers, including Samsung SDI (006400.KS) and LG Chem (051910.KS).

For graphic click: tmsnrt.rs/2qvJoED

Yi Kang-myung, SungEel HiTech’s president, said the shortage of mined metals had led his company to boost capacity by threefold this year. It plans to list in 2020.

“We are receiving phone calls from many who are showing interest,” Yi said in an interview at the plant.

“Major automobile companies are interested in our products,: he said, without naming the

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