“Where golden birds fly every morning, that India is my country” – the latest leap taken by India has awakened the feeling of patriotism amongst the citizens once again. The Union Ministry of Mines has announced that 5.9 million tonnes of lithium reserves have been found in Salal – Haimana area of Jammu and Kashmir. This is news to celebrate because not only this is the first-ever discovery of lithium in India, but also the seventh-largest deposit of the metal in the world. Lithium is used for manufacturing rechargeable batteries for electric cars, smartphones, and laptops. It is one of the most important contenders for replacing fossil fuels. Currently, the demand for lithium carbonate stands at about 0.5 million metric tonnes and is expected to reach 3-4 million metric tonnes by 2030 owing to the push for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero, as per the Paris Climate Pledges. However, lithium reserves are rare and given their unique characteristics, it is unlikely to be replaced by any other metals. Therefore, it is commonly termed as ‘White Gold’ and countries all around the world are mining in search of the same. Thus, from being no one, India has suddenly become an important global market for lithium.
Why is lithium so important?
Lithium is a grey, shiny and non-ferrous metal. It has the unique characteristics of being lightest in weight, yet the dense of all metals. It is highly reactive and the third element in the periodic table only heavier than gases like hydrogen and helium. This is the reason why it is highly suitable for electric gadgets, especially electric vehicles. Gadgets such as mobiles and laptops run on electricity and need batteries that are lighter in weight to reduce the overall weight of the gadget itself, and yet powerful enough to provide longer battery backup – lithium addresses both concerns quite efficiently. Lithium-ion batteries are highly efficient and have a higher energy density, low self-discharge rate, compact size, and longer lifespan as compared to any other battery. Hence, today, most mobile phones and laptops run on lithium-ion batteries. However, the need for lithium is much higher for electric vehicles. Electric vehicles do not have engines and they work on motors that are powered by battery packs. The lithium ions help to run these batteries and create an electric current. Since lithium-ion batteries are lightweight and yet powerful they can power vehicles without bulging them with weight or reducing their running capacity.
Now, several nations around the globe have invested heavily in the production of electric vehicles, with China leading the pack. China currently holds almost 60% global market share to process raw lithium into battery-grade chemicals. With the government’s push through the ‘Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicle (FAME)’ scheme in 2019, for the adoption and production of electric vehicles, India too has increased its manufacturing capacity. However, lithium had to be imported and India is currently the second largest importer of lithium in the world. A bulk of this import – as much as 72 per cent – originated from China and Hong Kong. Until now, India didn’t have any lithium or cobalt reserves – the key components of cathodes and electrolytes. Therefore, the cost of manufacturing batteries in India was high with inadequate infrastructure to manufacture other components and their assembly adding further to the costs. However, the latest discovery of 5.9 million metric tonnes in Jammu and Kashmir will boost the entire chain of economic activities.
Lithium also has one important utility apart from powering electric vehicles, mobiles and laptops. Solar companies are increasingly preferring lithium over others, to store solar energy captured by solar panels because lithium batteries are efficient and hold more energy than other batteries with very low maintenance costs. Thus, lithium has wide arrays of importance and its extraction can take us closer to our dream of becoming a solar superpower. Yes, it is a still long way to go with several challenges to overcome, however, India certainly has an edge in the ‘Sustainable Energy Era’.