THE Ministry of Mines recently announced that the Geological Survey of India (GSI) found lithium and gold deposits and that 51 such ‘mineral blocks’ have been handed over to state governments. The announcement made headlines in India and globally, given the commercial and strategic importance of lithium. It is the critical component in lithium-ion batteries that powers everything, from smartphones to electric vehicles.
The demand for this mineral is set to rise as the world takes steps for a transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy in various sectors, and at the crux of this transition are lithium-based batteries that are chargeable and can store energy. This is the reason lithium is often called the ‘white gold’ or the ‘new oil’. The tonnage flashed by the ministry — 5.9 million — caught the world by surprise because it catapulted India from a nobody to among the top 10 of the global lithium league overnight.
So, should the announcement be taken as the formal entry of India in the race for this new resource? Let’s examine this before we start celebrating.
The wording used in the ministry’s press release gives it an air of ambiguity and contradiction. It said, “The GSI has for the first time established lithium-inferred resources (G3) of 5.9 million tonnes in the Salal-Haimana area of Reasi district in Jammu & Kashmir.”
In geological terminology, ‘inferred’ is used for a mineral resource for which there is geological evidence of its presence, but it is not a verified resource and lacks evidence of its continuity. The tonnage, grade and mineral content of an ‘inferred’ resource can only be estimated with a low level of confidence.
G3 is part of an internationally accepted four-level classification of different stages of mineral exploration under the United Nations Framework Classification and associated mineral content rules. In this, G4 means reconnaissance survey with only indirect evidence of a mineral, while G3 denotes estimates inferred based on the interpretation of geological, geophysical and geochemical data. G2 gives a reasonable indication of the continuity of a resource, and G1 indicates detailed exploration. In sum, ‘inferred’ in geology jargon does not mean ‘indicated’ or ‘measured’. If the GSI is categorising its discovery as G3, then how is it able to give an exact tonnage for the lithium deposits, just below that of Chile, which is the largest producer?
This is not the first time that lithium has been ‘found’ in Kashmir, as being claimed by the ministry. Way back in the mid-1990s, traces of lithium had been found in Kashmir and based on an analysis of over 800 samples, the GSI had then concluded that “higher values of lithium are persistent throughout the belt (where bauxite column is exposed); bauxite column has wide and more exposures in Salal-Ransuh area.” The agency felt that the region had ‘a better prospect for lithium’. The report was submitted to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1999. It is the same region from which the GSI has reported the presence of lithium this year and claims it has been done for the first time. As recently as July 2022, the government did not know about possible lithium resources in Kashmir. Asked about the prospects of finding lithium in the country, the government answered in the negative in Parliament, while saying that the GSI had taken up 18 projects on lithium in Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Rajasthan during its 2022-23 field season.
Given the criticality of lithium for India’s energy transition and electric mobility plans, the government needs to clarify the actual status of indigenous lithium availability. Building capabilities for the exploration, extraction, refinement and production of rare minerals could take decades.
This has been witnessed in the case of minerals needed for the nuclear energy development taken up soon after Independence. One of the first steps of the Atomic Energy Commission set up in 1948 under the chairmanship of Homi J Bhabha was to stop the export of monazite from Kerala and develop a facility for extraction of thorium from it. For this, a new public sector unit, Indian Rare Earths Limited, was formed in 1950. Around the same time, Bhabha established the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) to explore minerals needed for the nuclear programme. Air-borne reconnaissance programme was also initiated. For reproduction of nuclear fuel, Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) was established in Hyderabad. Bhabha realised India would not be able to forge ahead with its plans to make nuclear power reactors without developing technological capabilities in all related areas. It was the AMD that found potential deposits of lithium in Karnataka a couple of years ago.
While the GSI and AMD are involved in prospecting lithium, the rest of the value chain to produce commercial-grade lithium indigenously is not in place. The official press release said that identified block had been handed over to the administration of Jammu and Kashmir. It is unclear if further development will be the responsibility of the state or if blocks will be auctioned to private companies just like coal and iron mines. The finding is still at a preliminary and yet to be at an exploration or mining stage.
Lithium available from the ‘lithium triangle’ of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina — accounting for 60 per cent of the global availability — is found in brines. In Australia, Canada and China, identified lithium reserves are in hard rock formations. In Kashmir too, it is in bauxite rocks. The mining technologies differ widely and are highly complex. The next step would be developing suitable extractive and refining technologies, followed by processing and purification to transform extracted material into high-purity lithium.
While Chile has the largest mineral reserves, China leads in lithium-refining capacities. It is going to be a long way for the rocks from the mines in Kashmir to make it to the smartphone in the pocket or bonnet of the car next door. It will take huge investments in research and development and industrial processes to make this happen.
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