The geographical formation in Jammu & Kashmir wherein ‘inferred’ lithium resources of 5.9 million tonnes were recently established likely extends well beyond the original location where the mineral was detected, and the scope of geological exploration is now being widened, a government official indicated.
This could expand the scale of the lithium find (hard rock deposit type), already pegged as India’s largest deposit of the white alkali metal, which is a vital ingredient of the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries powering electric vehicles, laptops and mobile phones.
Incidentally, lithium was discovered when exploration was underway for two other different minerals – limestone and bauxite – in the same column and location in the Salal-Haimana area of J&K’s Reasi district. When mining commences at the location, there will be three different minerals to be extracted from the catchment zone – bauxite, limestone and lithium.
“The geological exploration (in that area) was primarily focused on the other two minerals (limestone and bauxite), and lithium just happened to be discovered in the same column… It has also been assessed that this geological formation extends further (on our side of the India-Pakistan border), and so the scope of the exploration is now being widened,” the official, who did not want to be quoted, said.
The J&K administration will now carry out the groundwork for auctioning the find for commercial exploitation, the official said. Multiple domestic and international mining companies are expected to participate in the auction, the official said.
Lithium is generally produced from two main different deposit types: brines and hard-rock. Operations exploiting brine deposits of the type in South America pump saline brines with high lithium content from beneath the surface and the lithium is concentrated by way of evaporation, before the brine is sent on to processing facilities for the production of lithium hydroxide.
Why the find is so critical
discovery of ‘inferred’ lithium reserves in Reasi and its expanded scope comes as electric vehicles are predicted to be a sector ripe for disruption, and India is trying to reduce its dependence on key resources from China.
In case of hard-rock operations of the kind likely in J&K, the ore is extracted, usually from pegmatite deposits, using conventional mining techniques before it is concentrated by way of crushing, and separated to produce a concentrate. The primary lithium-bearing mineral in this ore is usually spodumene, and the produced spodumene concentrate is then usually sold to lithium hydroxide or carbonate conversion plants, where it is then converted to lithium chemical products. Although hard-rock producers have lower costs, the price they receive for their final product, usually spodumene concentrate, is sharply lower than that received for lithium carbonate, chloride and hydroxide produced by way of brine operations.
The Geological Survey of India (GSI) had recently established ‘inferred’ lithium resources of 5.9 million tonnes in the Reasi District as part of the ‘Reasi Sersandu – Kherikot –Rahotkot – Darabi’ mineral block in J&K, where prospecting has been underway since 2021-22.
Under the United Nations Framework for Classification for Reserves and Resources of Solid Fuels and Mineral Commodities (UNFC 1997), the stage of prospecting is categorised as ‘G4’ when it entails reconnaissance surveys, a fairly advanced stage of prospecting.
While it is clearly the biggest lithium find in the country and could get even bigger, there are two caveats with the J&K deposits: this new find is categorised as “inferred” – one of the three categories that mineral resources are subdivided into, 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 from geological evidence.
Secondly, this find, in inferred terms, is also comparatively small, considering that the proven reserves in Chile and Bolivia are well over 20 million metric tonnes, 17 million tonnes in Argentina, 6.3 million tonnes in Australia and 4.5 million tonnes in China.
The country 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.
India is seen as a late mover as it attempts to enter the lithium value chain, coming at a time when EVs are predicted to be a sector ripe for disruption. And 2023 is likely to be an inflection point for battery technology, with several potential improvements to the Li-ion technology. Over 165 crore lLithium batteries are estimated to have been imported into India between FY17 and FY20 at an estimated import bill of upwards of $3.3 billion.
The GSI report for the Salal-Haimana location, along with 15 other resource-bearing geological reports and 35 Geological memorandums were recently handed over to respective state governments. Out of these 51 mineral blocks, five blocks pertains to gold and other blocks pertains to commodities like potash, molybdenum, base metals spread across 11 states including J&K, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Telangana. The blocks were prepared based on the work carried out by GSI from field seasons 2018-19 to till February 2023.
According to Ministry of Mines-approved annual Field Season programme (prospecting plan), the GSI takes up different stages of mineral exploration — reconnaissance surveys (G4), preliminary exploration (G3) and general exploration (G2) as per the guidelines of UNFC and the Minerals (Evidence of Mineral Contents) Amendment Rules, 2021 (Amended MMDR Act 2021) for augmenting mineral resource for various mineral commodities, including lithium. During the last five years, the GSI has carried out 14 projects on lithium and associated elements, of which five projects on Lithium and associated minerals were taken up during ‘field season’ 2021-22.
In India, there is some potential to recover Lithium from brines of Sambhar and Pachpadra areas, the Rajasthan and Rann of Kutch, Gujarat. Also, the major mica belts located in Rajasthan, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh and the pegmatite belts in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, alongside rock mining being undertaken at Mandya, Karnataka, are the other potential geological domains of the country.
The Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD), an arm of the Department of Atomic Energy, had earlier conducted preliminary surveys that had shown the presence of lithium resources of 1,600 tonnes in the igneous rocks of the Marlagalla–Allapatna region of Karnataka’s Mandya district. The AMD has been carrying out exploration, both on surface and some subsurface exploration, to augment lithium resources in the potential geological domains of the country, a government official said.
Apart from the domestic lithium push, there is also an attempt to tap into established value chains globally, with a team comprising one geologist each from Mineral Exploration Corporation Ltd. (MECL), KABIL (Khanij Bidesh India Ltd.), and the Geological Survey of India (GSI) learnt to have travelled to the Argentinian province of Catamarca recently to scout for opportunities. An MoU with the Argentinian government had been signed earlier.
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