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What India’s discovery of first ever lithium deposits means for country

Country has so far been dependent on imports of crucial minerals

Stuti Mishra
Saturday 11 February 2023 04:31 GMT
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Simon Calder: dangers posed by overheated lithium batteries on flights

Significant lithium reserves have been found in India for the first time in an important discovery that bodes well for the south Asian giant’s plans to transition into clean energy and its push for electric vehicles.

Lithium is a rare mineral that is highly reactive, lightweight and can store large amounts of energy in a compact space, making it the ideal material for use in batteries.

The demand for lithium has grown globally as countries race to reduce carbon emissions and switch to clean energy. Energy storage, thus, plays a crucial role.

India has so far remained dependent on foreign supplies for crucial minerals like nickel and cobalt – including lithium – as the country pushes on with its ambitious plans to expand energy storage tech and electric vehicles market.

On Thursday, officials from India’s federal government announced they had found 5.9m tonnes of lithium reserves in the Reasi district of the northern Jammu and Kashmir region.

“For the first time, lithium reserves have been discovered and that too in Jammu and Kashmir,” Mines Secretary Vivek Bharadwaj told reporters.

Describing it as a way for India to become “aatmanirbhar”, a slogan promoted by the Narendra Modi government that means self reliance, Mr Bharadwaj said the critical mineral discovery will aid domestic production of batteries for a number of devices, including mobile phones and solar panels.

Recently, India began a major push for research and development of crucial minerals as part of a national mission on advanced energy storage aimed at developing next-generation energy storage tech that also involves the use of lithium.

The government had set up a task force to explore opportunities for domestic lithium production as well.

“We have re-oriented our exploration measures towards critical and strategic minerals and this discovery is a vindication of our efforts,” Mr Bhardwaj told the Mint business newspaper.

A significant reserve like this can provide a major boost to the country’s plans to establish itself as a dominant player in the global electric vehicle market, experts say. However, it’s going to be a long process before the newfound lithium could be in use.

“The discovery of India’s first lithium reserve is a positive step for India’s energy security and EV manufacturing ambitions,” says Siddharth Goel, a senior policy advisor at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

“But international experience shows that environment permitting, mine development can take 10 years or more. In the short-term, India still needs a strategy to source critical minerals, for its 2030 clean energy and EV targets.”

Aarti Khosla, director at Delhi-based research organisation Climate Trends, says that although the recent discovery of lithium is “encouraging”, the reserves are categorised as being in the “inferred category”, signifying that the quality of the mineral can not be ascertained at this point.

“Before going forward, there is a need to do a preliminary finding via actual extraction to check its feasibility and convert this estimated resource to the exploitable category with a high degree of confidence level and explore its chances of augmenting it.”

India aims to make electric vehicles take up 30 per cent of the total market for vehicles sold in the country by 2030.

As of now, lithium is the only reliable option for producing batteries for electric vehicles because of its high density and ability to retain its charge for a long time.

Over half of the global lithium reserves come from three South American countries.

China, on the other hand, is a top player in the production of lithium-ion batteries. Over three-quarters of the total such batteries in the world are produced by India’s neighbour and rival.

But for India, exports form around 80 per cent of the total lithium used by the country. India obtains many minerals – particularly lithium – from Australia and Argentina.

The country had earlier in 2021 found a smaller lithium deposit in the southern state of Karnataka.

A driver of an electric car charges his vehicle at public charging station in New Delhi, India (AP)

Lithium is also key for India’s transition to renewables. Large reductions in the cost of renewable technologies such as solar and wind have made them cost-competitive with fossil fuels in recent years.

Effective storing solutions, however, remain a challenge for the adoption of these intermittent sources of energy for many countries that need low-cost solutions. Lithium-ion batteries are the most commonly used for this, and there has been a significant price reduction in them since the 1990s.

Experts caution that as the country gears up to use the newfound reserve, mining in an eco-sensitive Himalayan region like Jammu and Kashmir comes with its own challenges.

Dr Parveen Kumar, a senior manager in electric mobility at World Resources Institute (WRI) India, says the process of mining it further will also need a “balanced analysis that takes into account the ecological sensitivities of the region”.

The environmental costs of excavating minerals like lithium has met with protests in several parts of the world, including in Argentina. Lithium is extracted from hard rocks and underground brine reservoirs and the process is water extensive and emits high amount of CO2.

According to a report by Friends of the Earth (FoE), lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination.

The Himalayas are one of the most eco-sensitive landscapes in the country and another state, Himachal Pradesh, is already witnessing catastrophic impacts of mining projects.

Recently, large-scale land subsidence in the Himalayan town of Joshimath led to cracks developing in over 800 houses with hundreds of people forced to move to shelter homes. Activists and experts in the region hold “uncontrolled developmental projects” responsible for the disaster.

Meanwhile, the global demand for lithium is expected to increase by approximately 761 per cent from 2020 up to 2030, according to the Lithium Industry Association’s forecast.

Global lithium market size was valued at $7.1bn in 2021, and it is expected to reach a value of $15.45bn by 2028. The same report highlights that this demand has increased by 3000 per cent since 2010, thanks to an increase in electric vehicle production.

The need for energy in India is also soaring. India still heavily relies on coal for energy production but it aims to create 50 per cent of its electricity from non-fossil sources by 2030 and plans to add 76 gigawatts of utility-scale solar and wind power by 2025 – an area where lithium will play a crucial role.

While mining projects come with their own environmental costs, according to the World Bank, crucial minerals will need to increase by 500 per cent to meet global climate targets by 2050, pointing to a tricky balance required for energy generation, not just for India but for the entire globe.

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