The Indian government announced on Thursday, Feb. 10 that 5.9 million tons of lithium, a crucial mineral for the manufacturing of electric vehicles and solar panels, had been discovered in the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir.
It was the first major discovery of lithium in India, with the only other reserves being a small deposit of 1600 tons discovered in Karnataka two years ago. Up to this point, the country had depended on Australia, Chile, and Argentina for any imports of lithium needed for its manufacturing sector.
Mines secretary Vivek Bharadwaj told reporters that the lithium deposit will help India become “aatmanirbhar,” a slogan often promoted by prime minister Narendra Modi that means self-reliant. And the discovery is certainly a critical milestone in India’s quest to become a global manufacturing leader, coming just days after the US Secretary of Commerce announced plans for a strategic partnership between the two countries to boost competition against China.
To put the size of the deposit in perspective, the lithium from this discovery alone means India now has the fifth-largest lithium reserves in the world, just ahead of the United States. However, refining lithium ore into a mineral that can be used to make batteries is a complex process, meaning India will have to rely on imports for at least a few more years.
Lithium is often referred to as ‘white gold’ due to the increasing value of lithium batteries in manufacturing items like phones, laptops, and electric vehicles. And with the EV industry expected to reach more than $800 billion in annual market size by 2030, the newfound reserves likely mean a big payday for manufacturing companies in India.
The discovery will also likely help the Indian government deliver on a recent promise to increase the number of private electric cars by 30% before 2030. The World Bank has said that the mining of crucial minerals such as cobalt, graphite, and lithium will need to increase by 500% to meet global climate goals by 2050.
However, the process of mining and refining lithium has been criticized for its considerable environmental impact. The element is most often found in underground reservoirs, meaning it often contaminates and cuts off scarce water sources in rural communities. Additionally, the production process involves heating the ore at a high temperature that can only be cost-effectively reached by burning fossil fuels, meaning that for every ton of lithium, 15 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the air.
The vast majority of the world’s lithium reserves are found in the wide expanse of salt flats in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Bolivia has by far the world’s largest lithium reserves, but most of it remains in the ground as the country does not have the developed infrastructure to excavate it. Due to this, Bolivia does not rank anywhere near the top in actual lithium production.