Alongside a move to tap into the global lithium value chain, India has initiated a concerted domestic exploration push for the alkali metal, a vital ingredient of the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs), laptops and mobile phones.
Preliminary surveys by the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD), an arm of the Department of Atomic Energy, are learnt to have shown the presence of 1,600 tonnes of lithium resources in the igneous rocks of the Marlagalla-Allapatna region of Karnataka’s Mandya district.
A government official said the AMD is carrying out surface and sub-surface exploration for lithium in potential geological domains of the country. The find in Mandya is extremely small in quantitative terms, but it marks some initial success in the attempt to domestically mine the silver-white metal by way of hard-rock extraction of the ore.
India currently imports all its lithium needs.
The domestic exploration push, which also includes exploratory work to extract lithium from the brine pools of Rajasthan and Gujarat and the mica belts of Odisha and Chhattisgarh, comes at a time when India has stepped up its economic offensive against China, a major source of lithium-ion energy storage products being imported into the country. The Marlagalla-Allapatna area, along the Nagamangala Schist Belt, which exposes mineralised complex pegmatites (igneous rocks), is seen as among the most promising geological domains for potential exploration for lithium and other rare metals, officials said.
There are, however, two caveats. First, the new find is categorised as “inferred”, one of the three categories into which mineral resources are subdivided, in order of increasing geological confidence. The ‘inferred’ mineral resource is the part of a resource for which quantity, grade and mineral content are estimated only with a low level of confidence based on information gathered from locations such as outcrops, trenches, pits, workings, and drill holes that may be of limited or uncertain quality, and also of lower reliability.
Second, the lithium find is comparatively small, considering the size of the proven reserves in Bolivia (21 million tonnes), Argentina (17 million tonnes), Australia (6.3 million tonnes), and China (4.5 million tonnes).
Lithium can be extracted in different ways, depending on the type of the deposit – it is generally done either through solar evaporation of large brine pools or by hard-rock extraction of the ore. In India, alongside the rock mining at Mandya, there is some potential for recovering lithium from the brines of Sambhar and Pachpadra in Rajasthan, and Rann of Kachchh in Gujarat. The major mica belts in Rajasthan, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh, and the pegmatite belts in Odisha and Chhattisgarh apart from Karnataka, are the other potential geological domains.
In the middle of last year, India, through a newly-floated state-owned company, had signed an agreement with an Argentinian firm to jointly prospect lithium in the South American country that has the third largest reserves of the metal in the world. The new company, Khanij Bidesh India Ltd, was incorporated in August 2019 by three state-owned companies, NALCO, Hindustan Copper, and Mineral Exploration Ltd, with the specific mandate to acquire strategic mineral assets such as lithium and cobalt abroad. The company is learnt to be also exploring options in Chile and Bolivia.
India is seen as a late mover in attempts to enter the lithium value chain, coming at a time when EVs are predicted to be a sector ripe for disruption. 2021 is likely to be an inflection point for battery technology – with several potential improvements to the li-ion technology, and alternatives to this tried-and-tested formulation in advanced stages of commercialisation.
Over 165 crore lithium batteries are estimated to have been imported into India between 2016-17 and 2019-20 (up to November 30, 2019), at an estimated import bill of upwards of $3.3 billion.