Not an easy road

India needs technology transfers to mine its new lithium reserves

India's ambitious plan to achieve net zero by 2070 can increase the demand for EVs and lithium

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Image: CARLOS BARRIA (Reuters)

The recent announcement by India’s Geological Survey of India (GSI) on its preliminary exploration of lithium reserves has excited many industries dependent on the scarce alkali metal. According to the GSI, it has established “lithium inferred resources” —which are calculated based on a physical and chemical study of the surface and samples—along the Salal-Haimana area of Reasi district in Jammu and Kashmir.

The news has given hope to manufacturers of lithium-based batteries, electric vehicles, solar equipment, and other industries that are currently dependent on lithium imports from China and other countries. According to government data from the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, between April-December of 2022-23, India shelled out Rs 163 billion for the import of lithium and lithium-ion.


Aditya Vikram, managing director of Renon India, a lithium-ion battery manufacturer from Gujarat, told Mongabay-India that if the metal is available domestically, the battery production cost can come down 5% to 7%. India currently imports all the major components that go into Li-ion cell manufacturing are currently imported.

“Lithium batteries comprise around 100-200 lithium cells for electric two-wheeler applications. Lithium cells are composed of elements like lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, copper, graphite, and others. The advantage the domestic market can give us is a stable supply independent of evolving geopolitics,” he said.


He added that those dependent on imports often face price fluctuations of imported lithium cells due to rising imbalances in the dollar-to-rupee rates and supply chain issues.

The ambitious plan of the Indian government to achieve net zero by 2070 can potentially increase the demand for lithium. As the country races to transition to clean energy, there will be a higher need for lithium as electric vehicles (EVs) and clean energy storage devices are currently dependent on metal.

According to NITI Aayog, the total EV sales by 2030 could go up to 80 million from the 1.3 million sales reported till July 2022. A report from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) claims that by 2029-30 India will have 2.700 Megawatt of battery storage capacity.

Finding lithium

The GSI originally mapped and reported the presence of lithium deposits in the region more than two decades ago, in 1999. Mapping by GSI is the very first step toward identifying any mineral. It is followed by the next phase of exploration where the inferred resources are calculated based on a physical and chemical study of the surface and samples.


The country took two decades to move from the G4 (reconnaissance) stage, where the mapping of resources takes place, to the G3 (prospecting) stage, where quantities are inferred, based on the interpretation of geological, geophysical, and geochemical results and a deposit is identified which will be the target for further exploration. In the next stage, G2 (general exploration), more studies are done to estimate the minerals’ shape, size, and grade. And finally, the G1 stage (detailed exploration) is where characteristics of the deposit are established with a high degree of accuracy. A decision on whether to conduct a feasibility study next can be made from the information provided by the G1 stage. GSI adopted this classification of mining exploration of the United National Framework Classification for mineral reserves of 2009.

Pankaj Srivastava, Professor of Geology at Jammu University, told Mongabay-India that the G3 exploration in J&K is preliminary in nature, where the calculation confidence is low. It needs to be backed by more proof to substantiate the quantum of minerals available at such sites. The current study does not indicate whether metal extraction is possible at the site.


“To be more sure, exploratory companies undertake the G2 level of assessment after G3, where the indicative resources are calculated, which tells us how much of the deposit could be mined with more facts. Later in the G1 level, some minor exploratory mining is done to find if the area is ready for mining precisely, and the real ‘proved resource assessment’ is done at this level,” he added.

Early estimates indicate that the amount of lithium in Reasi could be to the amount of 5.9 million tonnes. As indicated in the 1999 report of the GSI, though, the lithium in the Reasi district is mixed with bauxite. The final deposit amount could be less than predicted at the G3 level. The lithium found in Reasi had more than 800 ppm (parts per million) quality, which hints at a higher level of enrichment. Any lithium mineral with more than 300 ppm quality is considered of good enrichment value, said Srivastava.


Why the progress of exploring such a crucial material, has been slow after 1999, is not clear. The emails sent by Mongabay-India to the GSI headquarters in New Delhi, its Public Relations officer in Kolkata, and the department of mines in the Jammu and Kashmir government didn’t receive a response at the time of publishing.

India also had another claim of lithium deposits, in 2021, when India’s Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMDER) claimed to find 1,600 tonnes of the metal in the Marlagalla area in the Mandya district of Karnataka. Lithium reconnaissance resources (found after the G4 level of reconnaissance) are also explored along the Saraswati River in the Jodhpur and Barmer districts of Rajasthan in the brines. Lithium is traced and extracted from rocks, clays, sediments, and salty water (brine) on the surface of underground water bodies.


The journey of lithium from mine to battery

Deepak Krishnan, Associate Director, Energy Programme at the World Resources Institute (WRI)-India, told Mongabay-India that the recent GSI discovery has a long journey before it becomes commercially viable to mine lithium from the region and makes it to the production of lithium-ion batteries.


“We have to wait to see how much of this resource is feasible and viable to be commercially extracted. The GSI’s further study will reveal the quantum of the total reserve. Mining alone would not entail an end to external dependence. Countries like China have developed additional infrastructure and technological expertise, and experience in processing and refining mined lithium to make it ready to be used in batteries. We don’t have anything on that front and would need energy, capital, and the government’s hand-holding support for the same,” Krishnan said.

Lithium is known for effectively converting chemical energy into electrical energy due to its high durability, lightweight, and endurance. Sagar Mitra, Professor, Department of Energy Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bombay, told Mongabay-India that, unlike Chile, where there are lithium deposits, the Reasi region in J&K had lithium mixed with other minerals into the rocks. It can lead to more challenges in terms of cost and technology of processing.


“India is not habituated to extracting lithium and purifying it. It is mixed with rocks and other minerals. It would require breaking the rocks and removing volatile chemicals with evaporation and magnetic impurities with magnets besides other chemicals and processing. India has never done this, and neither has the best experience, tested technology to rely on, nor established industries for this,” he said.

He also added that such a complex exercise could also prove costly. “However, Australia has similar lithium reserves like J&K reserve, where lithium is mixed with bauxite. We may need technology transfers and tie-ups with the lithium metal extraction industry outside,” he said, adding that India must expedite the whole process, keeping in mind the rising demand for batteries and EVs.


Surendra Chaku, a retired geologist based in Australia, has worked in India, too, in explorations. He claimed that the reported occurrence by GSI is a very preliminary evaluation of the area, and one should wait for a final proven estimate before jumping to a conclusion.

“No resource has been defined yet, and many have hyped this. It has happened so many times before. It appears that this project may never make the grade to be mined. So, the question of mining in this pristine Himalayan area remains only speculation,” he said.


Deposits in the Himalayan region

According to the seismic zonation map of India, the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, which lies close to the Himalayas, comes under Zone IV and is also ecologically sensitive. Several international reports in countries where lithium mining takes place have talked about the impact of environmental degradation in such areas.


The metal is generally extracted from the brines by direct extraction technology, evaporating the brine, or by surface mining of clay and rocks.

An August 2022 report published in Nature Conservancy claimed that the proven technologies of lithium extraction through surface mining or brine evaporation would need hundreds of acres of land for extraction and could lead to the complete removal of native vegetation from the area. It also said that such projects are most likely to happen in rural areas and wild zones, affecting the local population and batting for sustainable mining methods for the metal.


The Reasi district in J&K, where the lithium deposits have been discovered, has rural households, vegetation, and the Chenab river and tributaries near its hills.

The article was originally published in Mongabay-India.