India’s race to secure Lithium – Opportunities and Challenges: Explained, pointwise

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First traces of Lithium in India were discovered in Karnataka’s Mandya district recently. The preliminary find is relatively small: a mere 1,600 tonnes of lithium deposits. Chile, on the other hand, has an estimated reserves of 9.2 million tonnes.

If oil powered the world in the 20th century, Lithium could play the same role in the 21st century. Naturally, even a small find commands great importance.

Echoing a similar sentiment, the discovery is being attached importance at the highest levels of government. This also shows the amount of effort and investment that lithium is likely to garner in the years ahead.

Must Read: Know all about Lithium
Why Lithium is so significant for India?

Climate change mitigation: Technologies such as lithium-ion batteries are slated to play a key role in India’s plan to reduce its carbon footprint by 33-35% from its 2005 levels by 2030, as part of its climate change mitigation commitments.

Energy Transition: At the heart of the transition from an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle to an electric vehicle is the battery, which accounts for at least 30% of the vehicle’s cost. And the key to the battery pack is lithium, at least for many years to come.

Electric mobility: Government schemes like Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles in India or FAME (India) has given impetus to adoption of e-mobility vehicles. By 2030, nearly three-fourth of Indian two-wheelers and all new cars are expected to be EVs and a bulk of them will be powered by lithium-based (battery packs) in the near term.

Energy security: According to the Central Electricity Authority, the country will need 27 GW of grid-scale battery energy storage systems by 2030. However, this will require massive amounts of lithium.

What are the issues and challenges faced by India w.r.t Lithium?

Negligible lithium resource base In India: Chile, Australia, Argentina, Bolivia and China have almost all the lithium reserves which have been explored so far globally. Out of this, Chile and Australia produced close to 75% of the total lithium produced in 2018.

India’s high import dependence: Almost all EVs in the country run on imported batteries, mostly from China. Between 2016 and 2019, the amount of foreign exchange spent on importing lithium batteries tripled, according to the Union science and technology ministry. Essentially, India finds itself staring at a new form of energy dependence.

Geo-political rivalry with China: The world’s four biggest mining firms (Albemarle, SQM, Tianqi and FMC) currently control 77% of the global lithium market. This has set off a race between India and China. China is known to house large lithium reserves and has also secured many lithium mines across multiple countries in order to ensure steady sources of supply for both lithium and cobalt. Hence, India’s quest for energy security could be easily derailed by a hostile neighbour.

Note: Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile—are sometimes referred to as the lithium triangle.
What steps have been taken by govt to secure Lithium?

i). India had recently unveiled its strategy for developing a battery storage ecosystem. It involves setting up at least 50-gigawatt hour manufacturing capacity for advanced chemistry cell batteries.

ii). ₹18,100-crore Production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme to manufacture lithium-ion cells within the country has been introduced. With the government’s PLI scheme, demand for lithium is bound to increase and it opens new opportunities for domestic exploration.

iii). Government formed Khanij Bidesh India Ltd (KABIL)— a joint venture comprising National Aluminium Co. Ltd, Hindustan Copper Ltd and Mineral Exploration Co. Ltd. it is looking to acquire cobalt and lithium mines overseas. KABIL is also exploring the direct purchase of cobalt and lithium.

iv). The government is also trying to secure government-to-government (G2G) deals. For instance, a recent case in point is India’s bilateral agreement with Argentina for securing strategic minerals. India and the US are also looking at setting up an alternative supply chain for lithium.

v). Lithium exploration: Apart from the discovery in Karnataka’s Mandya district, the Geological Survey of India has taken up seven other lithium exploration projects in Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan.

vi). Role of the private sector: Several automobile majors are planning to jointly develop a manufacturing facility in Gujarat, which could eventually morph into a global export hub for lithium-ion cells.

vii). India is working on the world’s largest grid-scale battery storage programme, which includes a 13 gigawatt-hour (GWh) facility in Ladakh and a 14 GWh system in Kutch. Large battery storage that can store and reconvert electricity can help India’s electricity grids as well, given the intermittent nature of power from clean energy sources such as solar and wind.

Are there any alternatives to Lithium?

Research and experiments are already underway to discover alternatives to lithium, based on materials that are more abundantly available.

Solid-state batteries are a promising option due to their high energy density and wide operating temperature. They are expected to become commercially viable within the next 5-10 years.

Other alternatives in the race are aluminium–air batteries (Al–air batteries) and sodium-ion batteries.

What is the way forward for India?

Concentrate on other advanced battery technologies: As China dominates the space of lithium-ion cell manufacturing, India has to take alternative steps to avoid a repeat of how things played out with solar equipment manufacturing. A section of experts and policymakers believe that one way to avoid a lithium conundrum and a possible Chinese trap is to concentrate on other advanced battery technologies.

– Aluminium-based battery technology: From a resource point of view, aluminium-based battery technology holds great promise. India has huge bauxite reserves, which gives it access to aluminium at a cheap price. This technology, as and when it matures commercially, will insulate India from dependence on global import.

Early adoption of other battery technologies: Further, India should strive to be an early adopter of other battery technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and solid-state batteries as well. Solid-state batteries are being explored using metals such as aluminium. India holds an upper hand with respect to the availability of different materials. Thus, the country may witness faster adoption of these alternate technologies as compared to lithium.

India should also try to intensify exploration within as well and exploit the opportunity to re-purpose and recycle used lithium-ion batteries.

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