Lithium Reserve Discovered in J&K Must Meet Several Tests, Including Sustainability

Find could boost India’s electric vehicle manufacturing as lithium is key for batteries. But before it is mined, Joshimath must be a lesson on respecting the eco-sensitivity of the Himalaya.

Kochi: On February 9, India announced the discovery of its very first substantial lithium deposits, amounting to 5.9 million tonnes, in Jammu and Kashmir’s Reasi district. 

Lithium, a shiny gray metal, is also called ‘white gold’ because it is a key component of electric batteries.

Experts say India’s lithium find is good news. If more assessments reveal that the lithium resources can indeed be tapped into and used, it will prove a shot in the arm for manufacturing electric vehicles in the country. However, the development of these reserves will need to be conducted sustainably – both in terms of the environment and equity – scientists added. 

An electric vehicle at a charging station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Tomás Freres, CC BY-SA 4.0

‘White gold’ found

On February 9, India’s Ministry of Mines announced that the Geological Survey of India, which also assesses India’s mineral resources, located 5.9 million tonnes of lithium resources – a first in the country – in the Salal-Haimana area of Jammu and Kashmir’s Reasi district. The Ministry of Mines handed over a report on this, along with 15 other resource-bearing geological reports and 35 geological memoranda, to the respective state governments during the 62nd Central Geological Programming Board meeting held on the day.

“For the first time, lithium reserves have been discovered and that too in Jammu and Kashmir,” the news agency PTI quoted mines secretary Vivek Bharadwaj as saying.

It’s a big deal.

Firstly, the soft, shiny gray metal is an extremely important one in today’s world. It is used, among other things, to build the batteries that electric vehicles cannot do without. Hence the name ‘white gold’. If India has its own sources of lithium, it would not have to rely too much on imports for its lithium needs, as it currently does. In 2020-21, India imported Rs 173 crore worth of lithium and Rs 8,811 crore worth of lithium ions. India’s lithium needs are also likely to rise, given the push for electric vehicles.

Secondly, lithium reserves are also rare. There are 98 million tonnes of lithium globally, said Rishabh Jain, senior programme lead, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). Now India has found 5.5% of these resources, he added.

As per one estimate, Chile – at 9.2 million tonnes – led the world in lithium reserves, followed by Australia (6.2 million tonnes). So India’s recent find of 5.9 million tonnes of lithium could catapult it into the top three countries in the world with the highest lithium reserves.

Also Read: Lithium-Ion Batteries: Where Did We Come From, Where Do We Go?

‘Inferred category’

“While this is a good development, we also need to temper expectations,” said Deepak Krishnan, associate director, WRI India.

That’s because these reserves are called “inferred resources”. These are resources for which quantity and grade can be estimated based on geological evidence, but whose geological and grade continuity cannot be verified at this stage, he clarified.

“There are a few stages of assessment before we can identify the proven reserve of Lithium in the Salal-Haimana deposit. If this ends up being substantial, it can help India reduce its import dependence for lithium in the future and help the stationary battery system and EV battery industries,” he said. “This builds on earlier announcements of lithium deposits in Karnataka, and the focus must now shift to assessing the commercial extraction potential.” 

In 2021, the 1,600 tonnes of lithium ore discovered in Karnataka were also classified as being in the “inferred category”. The Department of Atomic Energy later clarified this in a press release on February 9, 2021. 

“This is a preliminary estimate and requires further exploration efforts to convert the estimated resources to exploitable category with high degree of confidence level and explore the possibility of augmenting Li [lithium] resources in the area,” the release read. “Further, unless a proper technology/method is available to profitably extract lithium from its ore, the real benefit of exploration may not be there. With the data presently available with AMD, the actual economic benefits of the exploration cannot be estimated at this stage.”

While India has initiated a battery production linked incentive (PLI) scheme to set up battery cell manufacturing, it is “important to develop mineral processing and raw material processing capability to truly become atmanirbhar (self-reliant)”, commented Jain (CEEW).

The government had in May 2021 approved a PLI scheme worth Rs 18,100 crore for a period of five years to manufacture Advance Chemistry Cells (ACC) in the country. The scheme involves, among others, establishing a competitive ACC battery manufacturing set-up in the country. In June of the same year, three bidders including Reliance New Energy Limited signed the Program Agreement under the PLI.

A battery pack in a Nissan electric vehicle. Representative image. Photo: Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Environment and equity

The latest lithium find is an “important development towards self-reliance in the LIB [lithium-ion battery] supply chain”, commented Parveen Kumar, senior manager, Electric Mobility, WRI India. “While this is positive news, it will also need a balanced analysis that takes into account the ecological sensitivities of the region.”

The impacts of lithium mining on the environment and ecology are many. These include water, soil and air pollution. The process of extracting lithium from its ore is also extremely water-intensive; as per one estimate, it takes approximately 2.2 million litres of water to produce one ton of lithium. And the demand for lithium is only increasing. Globally, the demand for lithium is expected to increase by 488% by 2050, as compared to 2018, said Kumar.

Another issue is equity.

Commenting on the latest lithium find in Jammu and Kashmir, Krishnan said that in this era of resource nationalisation, all eyes would be on India – which currently holds the presidency of the G20, an intergovernmental forum for international economic cooperation – “to see if there are globally beneficial proposals regarding equitable access to the benefits derived from these critical minerals that the country will put forward”.

Lithium mining has caused environmental justice issues, a study that analysed the socio-environmental impacts of lithium mineral extraction in 2018 noted. It said that there has not been enough research conducted over the past four decades to address the sustainability challenges due to lithium mining and processing, especially the issue of its impacts on local communities.

Edited by Amrit B.L.S.