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India’s Lithium Industry

Context:  India has discovered 5.9 million tonnes of lithium-inferred resources in the Salal-Haimana area of Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir.

What is Lithium?

  • Lithium is a soft, shiny grey metal found in the earth’s crust. It is lightest of the solid elements, highly reactive and alkaline metal.
    • Due to its utility in diverse applications, it also referred as ‘White Gold’.
  • Uses: Lithium-ion batteries are used in wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles, all of which are crucial in a green economy.
    • Lithium is used in batteries to power smartphones, laptops and other gadgets.
    • Lithium is an essential component in the rechargeable batteries that run electric vehicles (EVs).
    • Lithium is a key element for new technologies and finds its use in ceramics, glass, telecommunication and aerospace industries.
    • Lithium is used in lubricating grease, high energy additive to rocket propellants, optical modulators for mobile phones and as convertor to tritium used as a raw material for thermonuclear reactions.
    • It is also used to make alloys with aluminium and magnesium, improving their strength and making them lighter.

Global Lithium Reserves

  • South America has a particularly rich supply of the metal, the three nations of Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina are collectively referred to as the ‘Lithium Triangle’.
  • China currently controls 77% of the global lithium-ion battery manufacturing capacity and is home to six of the world’s 10 manufacturing companies.
  • India’s recent find of 5.9 million tonnes of lithium could catapult it into the top three countries in the world with the highest lithium reserves.

India’s Lithium Reserves

  • The Geological Survey of India established 5.9 million tonnes of inferred lithium resources in the Salal-Haimana area of Reasi District in Jammu and Kashmir.
    • The term ‘inferred’ refers to the ‘preliminary exploration stage’.
  • Preliminary surveys have shown presence of lithium resources of 1,600 tonnes in the pegmatites of Marlagalla-Allapatna area, Mandya district in Karnataka.

Why is Lithium Important for India?

  • Reduce imports: India currently imports all of its Lithium from Australia and Argentina and 70% of its Li-ion cell requirement from China and Hong Kong.
    • In 2021-22, India’s lithium imports were $22.15 million. Hong Kong, China and the US were the top three sources.
    • The finding of lithium reserves in India will reduce dependence on imports.
  • Self-reliance: If this discovered Lithium reserve can be extracted, these deposits will give a big push towards the implementation of electric vehicle plans in India and lead India in a very strong position via becoming self-reliant (Atmaanirbhar) in developing technology around it.
  • Battery manufacturing: The lithium reserves in J&K could boost the domestic battery-manufacturing industry. India’s electric-vehicle (EV) market was valued at $383.5 million in 2021, and is expected to expand to $152.21 billion in 2030.
  • Clean energy targets: It will help India move towards clean energy technologies to meet its Paris Agreement climate pledges as the transition to electric vehicles is key as vehicular pollution accounts for a significant proportion of carbon emissions.
  • Economic benefits for J&K: The discovery of these reserves could also bring significant economic benefits to Jammu and Kashmir.
    • The development of a lithium mining industry in the region could create jobs, stimulate economic growth and uplift the local economy.
  • Digital revolution: The ongoing global transition to low-carbon economies, the rapid expansion of artificial intelligence (AI), and 5G networks will greatly reshape global and regional geopolitics.
    • The access to and control over rare minerals, such as lithium and cobalt, will play a crucial role in these changes.
Why is Lithium Important for India
Why is Lithium Important for India

What are the Challenges in Extraction of Lithium?

  • Water consumption: Extracting Li from hard rock mines entails open-pit-mining followed by roasting the ore using fossil fuels. This process consumes 170 cubic metres of water and releases 15 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of Li extracted.
  • Environment degradation: Open-pit-mining, refining, and waste disposal from these processes substantially degrades the environment, including depletes and contaminates waterways and groundwater, diminishes biodiversity, and releases considerable air pollution. 
  • Lack of expertise: India does not have the expertise or any company in the lithium mining space. As there aren’t any existing lithium mines in the country, mining firms in India don’t have any experience in that, say industry experts.
  • Feasibility study: As per a study, there has not been enough research conducted over the past four decades to address the sustainability challenges due to lithium mining and processing, especially the issue of its impacts on local communities.
  • Impact on Himalayas: Concerns have been raised over the impact that lithium extraction will have on the ecology of the Himalayan region.
  • High investments: Developing the necessary infrastructure for extraction of lithium is a challenge for India, as it requires significant investment in time, money, and resources.

Steps Taken by the Government to Explore Lithium Reserves in India

  • The Atomic Energy Act, 1962 permits the Atomic Minerals Directorate for exploration of Lithium in various geological domains of the country.
    • For the first time, the National Mineral Exploration Policy of 2016 recognised the need to explore these minerals.
  • Every year, as per approved annual Field Season Programme (FSP), the Geological Survey of India (GSI, an attached office of Ministry of Mines) takes up different stages of mineral exploration viz.
    • Reconnaissance surveys (G4)
    • Preliminary exploration (G3)
    • General exploration (G2)
  • GSI follows the guidelines of United Nations Framework Classification (UNFC) and Mineral Evidence and Mineral Content Rules (MEMC-2015) for augmenting mineral resource for various mineral commodities including lithium.

Way Forward

  • India should invest in research and development to develop and produce the necessary components and materials for the DLE technology system.
  • India can follow Chile’s footsteps that have designated lithium as a strategic resource and its development has been made the exclusive prerogative of the state.
  •  There needs to be public-private partnerships for future lithium projects which will allow the state to regulate:
    • The environmental impact of lithium-mining
    • Distribute the revenue from lithium production more fairly among local communities.
    • Promote domestic research into lithium-based green technologies.
  • Effective and careful management of this sector should be paramount if India’s rare minerals development is to meet its multiple goals of social wellbeing, environmental safety, and national energy security.

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