The Geographical Survey of India (GSI) revelations that Reasi hills hold vast treasures of rare and expensive lithium have triggered hopes of a better carbon-free future and a lot of prosperity. The inferred deposits have implied flip side too, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
On February 9, an otherwise non-descript village nestled in the high mountains of Reasi suddenly became a national cynosure. The village’s long solitude was disrupted as hoards of people started thronging the belt. Salal Kotli Sarpanch, Preetam Singh’s phone kept ringing as requests came for guiding the visiting officials to the area.
In 2018, a Geological Survey of India (GSI) team reached Salal, said Singh, to collect samples for research. They were following up the 1995-1997 survey by geologists KK Sharma and SC Uppal who spotted higher values of lithium in the area suggesting further exploration. Then, Lithium was in less demand, a situation that dramatically changed later.
The outcome of the 2018 exercise was made public on February 9, when the Ministry of Mines announced GSI’s success in locating “inferred” resources (G3) of 5.9 million tonnes of lithium in the Salal-Haimana belt.
“We have been about told the economic prosperity the discovery of the lithium will bring,” Singh said. “But simultaneously we find ourselves worrying about our possible displacement.”
Officials say the discovery will boost Aatma Nirbhar Bharat and make it self-reliant in a metal that is now fuelling growth. The crucial discovery coincided with the climate-change-impacted world transitioning from fossil fuels to zero-emissions energy sources in which lithium holds the key. Over the years, especially by Industrial Revolutions 3 and 4, the shiny grey-light metal has evolved over the years in the global market as a ‘white gold.’
“Price of lithium has gone to insane levels! Tesla might actually have to get into the mining and refining directly at scale, unless costs improve,” Twitter owner, Elon Musk, the world’s top capitalist who invests in future technology including Tesla founder tweeted on April 9, 2022.
Apart from being used in batteries to power smartphones, laptops and almost all other gadgets, Lithium is a vital component in the rechargeable batteries that run electric vehicles (EVs). Its low weight and enormous capacity to store energy led markets to exhibit lithium hunger. The discovery is expected to end India’s import dependence and help in achieving its goals of reducing carbon footprints as the country aims at deriving about 50 per cent of cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel energy resources by 2030. In 2022, India sold more than a million EVs and the plan is to reach 10 million units by 2030.
“Lithium batteries are the new oil,” asserted Elon Musk, insisting by 2027 30 million EVs must be created. This, he said, would require 1.8 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent. “This would require a 473 per cent increase in output of lithium carbonate equivalent to 1.8 million tonnes from levels in 2019.”
“No doubt now, that India’s future will be ‘electrifying,’” Industrialist Anand Mahindra tweeted, hailing the discovery.
Against the normal grade of 220 ppm (particles per million), the Reasi lithium found is 550 ppm indicating the presence of the best quality in abundant deposits, earth scientist Prof Shakil Romshoo said. “India may become the world’s major producer and the EV industry will get a shot in the arm as India is committed to increasing the number of EVs by 30 per cent by 2030.”
NITI Aayog data suggests the total EV sales by 2030 could go up to 80 million from the current 1.3 million sales reported till July 2022. A Central Electricity Authority (CEA) report claims that by 2029-30, India will have 2.700 MWs of battery storage capacity.
These requirements have triggered massive price escalations for lithium, now dubbed ‘white gold’.
Asserting that the discovery will help India to tackle the climate change crisis, Ramshoo said, “now India can deliver on its international promise of becoming carbon neutral by 2070” If climate targets set in the Paris Agreement are to be met, he said green technology especially EV’s have to be promoted on large scale in India, China, US, and Europe.
While Chile, Australia, Argentina and China are home to the world’s highest lithium reserves, the path-breaking discovery put India on the map of the world’s largest lithium mines, only next to Chile. 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
The present discovery will reduce the country’s dependence on imports. Reports appearing in the media suggest in 2020-21, India imported Rs 173 crore worth of lithium metal and lithium batteries for Rs 8,811 crore. In 2022, between April and November alone, Rs 164 crore worth of metal and Rs 7,986 crore worth of batteries were imported.
Last year, Parliamentary Affairs, Coal and Mines Minister, Pralhad Joshi informed Rajya Sabha, that India imported Lithium-ion worth Rs 8,574 crores in FY 2018-19, Rs 8,819 crores in 2019-20 and Lithium-ion worth Rs 8,811 crores in 2020-21.
India did not manufacture lithium-ion (Li-ion) cells till 2020 and would import from China or Taiwan and assemble them here. “India imported US$1.23 billion worth of Li-ion batteries between 2018 and 2019,” a February 2022 report by the India chapter of the World Resources Institute (WRI) said. “Over 165 crores lithium batteries are estimated to have been imported into India between FY17 and FY20 at an estimated import bill of upwards of US $3.3 billion.”
Reasi could change the situation now.
While the officials said the work will start soon, it remains to be seen how the extraction will start. Lithium can be extracted in different ways, depending on the type of the deposit — generally either through solar evaporation of large brine pools or from hard-rock extraction of the ore.
A Long Way
As the deposit is being described as “inferred resources,” an official in the mining department, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “we should wait for some time till the final stages of assessment before proper identification of the proven reserve.”
Earlier, in 2021, the 1,600 tonnes of lithium ore discovered in Karnataka were also classified as being in the “inferred category”. A lot of steps are involved before India could become a producer of Lithium.
Many assessments and samplings are required. The exploration of mineral deposits is divided into four stages — reconnaissance (G4), preliminary exploration (G3), general exploration (G2) and detailed exploration (G1). In Reasi, GSI is at G3.
“These are initial estimates. The process will take many years before actual mining starts,” said, Professor Pankaj Srivastava, Department of Geology, University of Jammu. “To arrive at a high confidence level, the exploratory companies will 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, the real ‘proved resource assessment’ is done.”
Experts say the “inferred” mineral is a resource for which quantity, grade and mineral content are estimated only with a low level of confidence. It is 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 from geological evidence.
“As our level of confidence is low, it may increase or decrease. It is at a preliminary stage. Lithium is present in both forms. It is in the lattice of the mineral and it does not have its own mineral but the bauxite at the site is lithium-rich,” Srivastava said. “We need technology to extract lithium out of the rocks.
Geologists have found the solubility of lithium is amenable to dissolution only by hydrofluorination with perchloric acid, which means the metal is present either in silicate or in the lattices of bauxite mineral, the GSI Survey of 1995 to 1997 reveals.
As analytical results have indicated high values of Li (averaging 883.80 ppm), according to study, as the mineralogical studies have failed to identify the mineral phase except in one sample where cockeite was indicated, the higher values of lithium are persistent throughout the belt (where bauxite is exposed) in the bauxite column. “Lithium prospect in the bauxite column in the area investigation appears to be promising. The bauxite column in Salal-Panasa-Sangarmarg (Saroda Bas) and Chakar areas appears to be a promising horizon for lithium and may be taken up for further detailed work,” the study stated. “The higher values of Lithium are persistent throughout the belt (Where bauxite is exposed) in the bauxite column). Lithium prospect in the bauxite column in the area investigation appears to be promising.”
Amidst all these hopes and planning, environmentalists have raised a clarion call to save the flora and fauna of the region.
Romshu suggested that the mining and exploration of the lithium ore would have a significant environmental cost, which needs to be minimised, by employing the latest environmental-friendly exploration technologies.
Happy otherwise, even the residents know the flip side of the discovery. “We are apprehensive about an uncertain future. There will be economic prosperity but what will happen to us, our lands and homes,” Balbir Singh, a local transporter said. Almost 8000 people live in 2500 homes.
“We have learned that mining triggers pollution and people are displaced from demarcated areas,” Preetam Singh, a Sarpanch said. “Worried residents have called for a panchayat meeting. We cannot stop its extraction but the government has to think about us before embarking on the project.”