Need of “India Rare Earths Mission”

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    In News

    • Recently, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has urged the government to encourage private-sector mining in the Rare Earths minerals sector to counter India’s reliance on China for imports of such minerals.

    More in News

    • The industry has demanded to Set up an ‘India Rare Earths Mission’ which should be manned by professionals on similar lines with India Semiconductor Mission and make their exploration a critical component of the Deep Ocean Mission plan of the government. 
    • The focus on the critical minerals supply chain began primarily after the China-Japan Senkaku-Diaoyu island dispute, after which China had levied duties and implemented quotas on exporting rare earth elements. 
      • This was taken as a serious threat by the US, European Union and Japan because they were the major importers of rare earths. 

    What are Rare Earth Elements?

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    • There are 17 rare earth elements (REE).
    • It includes the 15 Lanthanides (atomic numbers 57 which is Lanthanum to 71 in the periodic table) plus Scandium (atomic number 21) and Yttrium (39).
    • REEs are classified as light RE elements (LREE) and heavy RE elements (HREE).  

    World Reserves

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    India’s Scenario

    • India has 6% of the world’s rare earth reserves. It only produces 1% of global output and meets most of its requirements of such minerals from China. 
    • Rare earth elements contribute a total value of nearly $200 billion to the Indian economy. 
    • In 2018-19, 92% of rare earth metal imports by value and 97% by quantity were sourced from China.
    • Some REEs are available in India which include Lanthanum, Cerium, Neodymium, Praseodymium and Samarium, etc. 
      • Others such as Dysprosium, Terbium, and Europium, which are classified as HREEs, are not available in Indian deposits in extractable quantities.
    • In India, monazite and thorium is the principal source of rare earths. 
    • Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL) which is a Government of India Undertaking, and KMML, a Kerala State Government Undertaking are actively engaged in mining and processing of beach sand minerals from placer deposits.

    Major concerns globally and for India 

    • Dependence on China: If India is not able to explore and produce these minerals, it will have to depend on other countries, including China, to power its energy transition plans to electric vehicles. 
    • Lack of Expertise: the reason India would not have found a place in the Minerals Security Partnership grouping is because the country does not bring any expertise to the table. 
    • Difficult to mine: Although they are more abundant than their name implies, they are difficult and costly to mine and process cleanly.
    • Monopoly of few: Most of the reserves being present in few nations causes problems for most of the world because of the concentration of reserves in the hands of few countries.
    • Supply Chain: Forming forward and backward supply chains will create problems when the reserves are mostly limited to one country.
    • Environmental Impact: The chief concern is that the rare earth elements are bound up in mineral deposits with the low-level radioactive element thorium, exposure to which has been linked to an increased risk of developing lung, pancreatic, and other cancers.
    • Capital-Intensive: The mining and extraction processes are capital-intensive and consumes large amounts of energy.
    • Toxic By-products: The mining of these minerals releases toxic by-products which are harmful for the environment and human health. 

    Why are these minerals important? / Significance 

    • Manufacturing of Batteries: Minerals like Cobalt, Nickel, and Lithium are required for batteries used in electric vehicles.
    • Used in most of the consumer products: REEs are an essential although often tiny component of more than 200 consumer products which includes mobile phones, computer hard drives, electric and hybrid vehicles, semiconductors, flat screen TVs and monitors, and high-end electronics.
    • Electric Vehicles: India has an ambitious plan to convert a large percentage of its transport to electric and this would require these minerals.
      • 80 percent of the country’s two- and three-wheeler fleet, 40 percent of buses, and 30 to 70 per cent of cars will be EVs by 2030.
    • Clean energy: They are critical for developing clean energy which is the need of the hour today.
    • Industrial use: Traditional uses like Cerium for glass polishing and lanthanum for car catalysts or optical lenses.
    • Manufacturing of magnets: neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium, are crucial to the manufacture of magnets which are used in industries and also in wind turbines and Drones. 

    Way Forward/ Suggestions 

    • Building up domestic capability: There is a need to build domestic capability and broad-base supply sources for such an important and strategic raw material.
    • Making it part of Make in India campaign: There is a need to make rare earth minerals a part of the ‘Make In India’ campaign, citing China’s ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative that focuses on new materials, including permanent magnets that are made using rare earth minerals. 
    • Supply chain resilience: The focus should be back on building cooperation on supply chain resilience which is a trade partnership for critical and emerging technology to deal with issues of climate, economy and pandemic impact. 
    • QUAD critical and Emerging Technology Working group: It aims to develop supply resilience among Quad members which includes India, US, Japan, and Australia. 
    • Green goals: the critical minerals and emerging technology are the major need of the hour for achievement of green future goals. 
    • Minerals Security Partnership (MSP): India should try through diplomatic channels to enter this partnership. (As, India is not a member of this.)
      • It is a US-led partnership initiative of 11 nations which aims to bolster critical mineral supply chains.
      • Partnership includes the USA, Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the European Commission. 

    Source: TH