India’s Lithium Discovery

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    In Context

    • A significant deposit of lithium, a rare metal used in the manufacturing of batteries for electronic devices and electric vehicles, has been discovered in India.

    About the discovery

    • 5.9 million tonnes inferred resources of lithium were discovered in the Salal-Haimana area of Reasi district, Jammu & Kashmir, by the Geological Survey of India
      • Mineral Resources are subdivided into inferred, indicated and measured  categories, based on the order of increasing geological confidence.
      • The term ‘inferred’ refers to the ‘preliminary exploration stage’, the second of a four-step process, according to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Exploration) Act 1957.

    About Lithium

    • About:
      • Lithium is a chemical element with the symbol Li and atomic number 3
      • It is a soft, silvery-white alkali metal
      • Under standard conditions, it is the least dense metal and the least dense solid element
      • Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive and flammable, and must be stored in vacuum, inert atmosphere, or inert liquid such as purified kerosene or mineral oil.
    • Global reserves:
      • Chile, Australia, Argentina, Bolivia and China contain most of the reserves discovered so far globally. 
      • In South America, 54% of the world’s Lithium reserves are found in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile
        • The area is referred to as the ‘Lithium Triangle’ and is concentrated in various salt pans present in the Atacama Desert and neighbouring arid regions.
    • Potential sources of Lithium in India:
      • In India, there is some potential to recover lithium from brines of Sambhar and Pachpadra areas in Rajasthan, and Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
      • The major mica belts located in Rajasthan, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh and the pegmatite belts in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, alongside rock mining being undertaken at Mandya, Karnataka, are other potential geological domains of the country.

    Significance of the Discovery

    • Application of Lithium-ion:
      • Lithium-ion batteries are used in wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles, all of which are crucial in a green economy.
    • Future potential:
      • A World Bank study suggests that the demand for critical metals such as lithium (Li) and cobalt is expected to rise by nearly 500% by 2050. 
      • Globally:
        • The global electric vehicle market is projected to reach $823.75 billion by 2030, registering a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 18.2% from 2021 to 2030. 
      • In India:
        • India’s market is projected to register a CAGR of 23.76% by 2028. 
    • Imports & need of self-sufficiency:
      • India currently imports all of its Li from Australia and Argentina and 70% of its Li-ion cell requirement from China and Hong Kong.
      • India is seeking to secure its critical mineral supplies and build self-sufficiency in this sector. The lithium reserves in J&K could boost the domestic battery-manufacturing industry
      • If the perceived size of the mineral reserves in J&K is borne out by further exploration, India could jump ahead of China vis-à-vis its Li stockpile.
    • Expansion of Electric Vehicles:
      • The J&K reserves will also help advance the Indian government’s ambitious plan of 30% EV penetration in private cars, 70% for commercial vehicles, and 80% for two and three-wheelers by 2030 for the automobile industry.
      • They will strengthen India’s National Mission on Transformative Mobility and Battery Storage as well.
    • Employment:
      • State government officials in J&K have said plans for Li exploration will involve local communities, who will also be prioritised for jobs in exploration and mine development.

    Concerns

    • Geopolitical concerns:
      • Union territory of J&K (previously a state) has been the site of historical cross-border tensions between India and Pakistan, domestic insurgency, and terrorism. 
      • So, this new discovery has geostrategic implications considering the geopolitical sensitivity of its wider location.
    • Environmental consequences:
      • The applications of Li in renewable energy infrastructure often obscures its significant environmental consequences, which vary according to the source
      • Extracting Li from hard rock mines, entails open-pit-mining followed by roasting the ore using fossil fuels
        • Industry estimates suggest that this process consumes 170 cubic metres of water and releases 15 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of Li extracted.
      • Air & water pollution:
        • 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
    • Geographically unstable region:
      • The geological context of mining in J&K differs from Australia, which has the largest Li stock.
      • In Australia, Li-bearing pegmatite deposits are found in the ancient geological regions of Pilbara and Yilgarn cratons, whose continental rocks have been stable for over a billion years.
      • Himalaya on the other hand is the youngest mountain range in the world and is much more unstable.

    District Mineral Foundation (DMF)

    • In recognition of the local effects of mining, in 2015, Lok Sabha amended the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act 1957 
    • It established the ‘District Mineral Foundation’ (DMF)
      • The DMF is a non-profit statutory ‘trust’ for every Indian district affected by mining-related operations that should “work for the interest and benefit of persons, and areas affected by mining-related operations”.
    • Issues:
      • In practice, the DMFs have become sites of centralised bureaucratic control, without meaningful public participation or accountability.
    • The general failure of DMFs adds to concerns expressed by environmentalists and concerned citizens about the recent history of weakening of the environmental impact assessment framework.

    Way ahead

    • The geostrategic importance of Li exploration and extraction makes it even more important that the exploration and extraction of resources should be done in the public interest, and must preempt any serious environmental and social problems
    • Equally importantly, the most effective use of Li reserves should be for the most important parts of the renewable-energy transition, which would also aid the goals of addressing energy poverty and sustainable development.
    • To these ends, reducing luxury consumption and promoting public transport should also be an important part of the agenda of a just transition.

    Daily Interview Question

    [Q] “The applications of Lithium in renewable energy infrastructure often obscures its significant environmental consequences”. Analyse.