Monday, March 27th, 2023 23:04:01

Lithium discovery : Challenges to conquer before producing it commercially

By Rakesh kumar
Updated: February 28, 2023 10:24 am

The above news has thrilled every Indian however one has to understand the properties of lithium to analyze the true impact of lithium discovery. Anybody who is using a smartphone or E rickshaw knows about lithium-ion batteries.

What is lithium?

Lithium is a chemical element with the symbol Li and atomic number 3. It is soft, silvery-white. it is the least dense metal and the least dense solid element. lithium is highly reactive and flammable, when cut, it exhibits a metallic lustre, but moist air corrodes it quickly to a dull silvery grey, then black. It never occurs freely in nature, but only in compounds, such as pegmatitic minerals. Due to its solubility as an ion, it is present in ocean water and is commonly obtained from brines (high-concentration solutions of salts).

Why lithium is important for India.

Our pledge to become energy neutral by 2070 is based on clean energy. Lithium is the main element required to make lithium-ion batteries, a critical input for electric vehicles (EVs).   Lithium batteries provide about 10 times longer life in comparison to lead-acid batteries and are much lighter in weight, better efficiency is the additional advantage. At present, India is managing its lithium-ion battery requirements through imports. In 2020-21, India imported lithium-ion worth Rs 8,811 crore and 95 percent of it came from Hong Kong and China.

Road to clean energy.

More than ten Indian companies have shown interest in manufacturing these batteries, all of these are dependent on technology transfer as well as the supply of raw materials from external sources. It would have solved the ecological issues of creating green energy but our import problem would have continued, the only difference would have been the shift to lithium import instead of crude.

The bold step was taken by the present government in accepting the challenge of making India net zero emissions by 2070. In the first stage, India’s non-fossil energy capacity will reach 500 GW by 2030. A Sanskrit shloka reflects similar vibes.

न ही लक्ष्मी कुलक्रमज्जता, न ही भूषणों उल्लेखितोपि वा ।

खड्गेन आक्रम्य भुंजीतः , वीर भोग्या वसुंधरा ।।

Na hi Lakshmi kulkramajjta, na hi bhooshno ullekhitopi va

Khadgen aakrmya bhoonjitah, veer bhogya Vasundhara.


The shloka tells us that wealth does not come to the one who was born into a royal family nor do the ornaments have the name of the owner, the jewels of the earth are enjoyed by those who are brave and ready to work hard for achieving their goals.

How present discovery reflect this spirit.

To understand this we have to look back a little. It was the year 2005 and we visited a few African countries to explore their market for opening an offshore insurance company on behalf of a public sector company in India. We were welcomed by the industrial as well as finance ministers of those countries, and all of them told us how the Chinese were entering into long-term business treaties. It was a surprise for the author as India was the leading supporter of the freedom struggle of these countries and lots of people of Indian origin were the leading business tycoons there. When the dragon was galloping the royal Bengal tiger was in slumber. As a result, China is controlling most of the world’s resources, particularly in Africa and south American countries.

During the same period, India was in news for policy paralysis, as well as the fight against corruption. Whatever auctions were cleared supreme court quashed these. The geological survey has taken more than 2 decades in completing stage one of the process. What took so much time? No information is available in the public domain. With this speed, it would have taken another 50 years to reach the final stage. As a result of this lethargy, India produces low quantities of rare earth metals compared to the size of its reserves and is low in the value chain despite having the fifth-largest reserves of rare earth metals.

India listened to the spirit of ‘awake arise and stop not till the goal is achieved”.

Contrary to this snail speed, all the new projects are getting completed in a time-bound manner, and progress is being measured through satellite images. In the last 9 years, the growth and development taking place have outpaced that of the seven decades of independence. Better compensation for land being acquired is another important factor that helped in improving the speed of completion.

Electricity to homes that are far off and do not have access to the national grid. 

As a result of these initiatives, 2.82 crore households have been electrified in the first 4 years of the launch of the Saubhagya scheme. It has promoted the adoption of highly-efficient LED lighting by most households; and prompted a massive expansion in renewable sources of energy, led by solar power.  Local mining of Lithium will reduce imports and it will save the country precious foreign exchange. It will also help India to be self-reliant in the production of lithium-ion batteries.

Controlling extremism.

Last but not least the geopolitical sensitivity of the location of the reserves found would have created a big problem. Terrorism did more harm to the ecology as well as the economy of Kashmir. forest were used to generate revenue. Smugglers and poachers have flourished on one hand while forest guards’ local police were not able to protect due to increased risk. The removal of 370 and making Jammu and Kashmir a union territory has improved law and order. Tourists have started visiting the valley, the public has tasted the fruit of better law and order, and cinema halls have started operating. Even though total peace is still away yet Pak sponsored terrorism is at its low point.

COVID-19 and the world becoming aware to the risk of monopoly.

As things improved internally, Thanks to the alleged role of China in the COVID controversy the world has awakened to the threat of Chinese monopoly.

The US, Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and many European countries established the mineral security partnership to secure a non-Chinese supply of critical minerals, including lithium. (Chemical & Engineering News ISSN 0009-2347). Australia has also indicated an interest in working with India on rare earth as well as other areas.

India is power-hungry.

Sarita Chaganti Singh of Reuter reported on 20th February that The power ministry expects a peak demand of 229 gigawatts in April and to address that India would need to operate a thermal capacity of 193 gigawatts that month, as a result, the Indian government on Monday invoked an emergency law to force power plants that run on imported coal to maximize output ahead. This will lead to the burning of 8 percent more coal this financial year.

Who will mine lithium?

Lithium extraction from natural ore is a complicated process having more than one technique. China is the leading producer with the latest know-how. Australia is another country that possesses lithium ore as well as technology. Even though India allows 100 percent foreign investment in the mining sector. However, one setback after another is seen limiting the scope of mining in the country. From Odisha to Tamil Nādu, from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to Bihar and Jharkhand major miners of the world who jumped the Indian fray have wound down their operations in India. The others have representative offices but no mining operations.

The challenge is to Protect the climate as well as flora and fauna.

Rio Tinto discovered large diamond nodes in Madhya Pradesh and was forced to withdraw due to strong opposition from civil society. The objection was genuine that it may destroy large tracts of forest land but plans could have been made to create bigger and better forests. The same was the fate of POSCO a company from South Korea. India has to find a way to protect its flora and fauna without sacrificing development. We can learn from the experiences of south American countries mining lithium to avoid the mess that happened there.

Inefficiencies and unrest!

Whether a new dam, road, power plant, or railway all new projects face long legal battles before they start working on the ground. The NGOs filing these cases accuse governments of violating their own laws. The government accuses NGOs of working under foreign influence. Both arguments have half-truths. There are issues with the government, particularly at the ground level, of inefficiency, insensitivity, and corruption. Communities suffer and unrest takes place. On the other hand, there are NGOS with dubious linkages.

In the present case also as soon as the news became public articles against lithium mining are getting published. Let’s have a look.

“Lithium in Jammu & Kashmir — a boon or a curse? Mining companies do not follow eco-friendly practices, and this is more pronounced in India because of its lax environmental regulations Deccan Herald 15th Feb 2023.”

“Explained | Why India’s lithium discovery is fraught with social and environmental risks. The Hindu February 14, 2023, 11:22 pm | Updated February 15, 2023, 12:02 pm IST”.

one can expect litigation in the form of PIL or agitations against mining. Former chief minister Mehbooba mufti has already expressed concern over the delicate ecology being damaged by the making of roads and pilgrimage of Vaishno Devi and Amarnath of  NGOs. It is a matter of time before Ms Mufti trains her gun on this project as well

NGOs will approach the National Green Tribunal. Compensation given will be debated. These are the areas where government should ensure efficiency and transparency. Once these issues are settled then the troublemakers must be dealt with an iron hand. When we are dealing with competition with China, South Korea, and Japan then taking 20 years in moving from stage 1 to stage 2 is criminal. The progress henceforth should be quick and time-bound.

Challenges on the ground.

China is a communist country where the public has little say in policy making or its implementation, leading to competitive advantages. Australian rocks are very old and stable. On the other hand, Himalayan rocks are the youngest, most unstable, and earthquake-prone. Under these circumstances, a lot of groundwork is needed both on research as well as acquisition and creation of the infrastructure. The anti-India forces will also play their role by using agitation, litigation, etc to derail the project (past events provide ample data). This will take a while to settle to get lithium from the present discovery.

Way forward.

looking at the facts given above it is clear that India has to work on acquiring these assets outside India as well. To ensure India’s mineral security as well as to attain self-reliance in the area of critical and strategic minerals, The Mines Ministry has created a joint venture (JV) company — Khanij Bidesh India (KABIL). KABIL is mandated to identify and acquire overseas mineral assets of critical and strategic nature such as Lithium, Cobalt, etc. as India has aspired to become a self-reliant country (Atmanirbhar Bharat), KABIL will cater to the requirements of crucial sectors such as e-mobility, renewable energy, medicine, aerospace, aviation among others, at present public sector has been roped in but India may need to involve

the private sector as well as they have developed core competence in managing non-rare earth minerals like coal and crude and steel and bauxite. Today reliance imports crude and exports refined petroleum products thru its large refining infrastructure. The growth of the Indian clean energy sector will depend on the fulfillment of the promise of ease of doing business as well as cubing crony capitalism.

The small steps taken in past have resulted in improved infrastructure and visibility of green shoots in the shape of blooming unicorns. The million-dollar question is can India repeat the success of the IT boom in the energy sector as well?

The successful covid vaccine drive along with nurturing the 1.3 billion hopes.  Keeping the economy on track during lockdown provides ample hope that India can manage this challenge as well. This article can be concluded by repeating,” Veera bhogya Vasundhara”


By Rakesh kumar

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