Lithium discovery big win for India, but concerns remain over mining and refining


Lithium discovery in Jammu and Kashmir provides a major boost to the government’s plans to create a domestic lithium-ion cell and battery capacity for renewable energy storage and electric vehicles.

The government aims to create 50 GWh of domestic lithium cell capacity by 2030 through its $2.5 billion (PLI) scheme for advanced-chemistry cell energy storage. The domestic availability of lithium will cut India’s dependence on imports of this raw material for lithium battery manufacturing.

Hiren Pravin Shah, executive director and CEO, RePlus Engitech, a part of LNJ Bhilwara Group, terms the discovery of 5.9 million tonnes of lithium resources in Jammu & Kashmir as a significant development for India’s energy security. “These lithium reserves will be serving our nation’s two most important priorities as a part of G20 and COP27 commitment— decarbonization of the grid and penetration of EVs. The total lithium battery storage demand for both these applications in 2030 is estimated to be 500 GWh. If we are able to fully utilize the reserves within the available window and timelines, we may just be able to cover the requirement for the next one or one-and-a-half decades with best practices and recycling ecosystem,” he told pv magazine.

Notably, the Geological Survey of India has established the presence of lithium in the preliminary exploration stage (G3). The finding, described as lithium inferred resources (G3), means the exact content and quality of the mineral resources are yet to be established. G3 is followed by two more stages of exploration, G2 (general exploration stage) and G1 (detailed exploration stage) to estimate quantities with a high level of confidence.

Notwithstanding, it is safe to assume that the massive discovery puts India among the top 10 nations with the world’s largest lithium reserves. 

Chile has the world’s largest lithium reserves at 9.2 million metric tonnes (mmt). Australia ranks second with 5.7 mmt. It is followed by Argentina (2.2 mmt), China (1.5 mmt), and USA in that order.

“While the discovery of 5.9 million metric tonnes of lithium reserves is a pleasant sight for the entire ecosystem, it is quite early to comment, given the geopolitical situations, the uncertainty about the quality of the resources, and other strategic factors. If we can take the exploration from G3 to G1 in the next two to three years, it will immensely fuel the PLI scheme by enabling the complete cell manufacturing in India,” shared Rashi Gupta, founder and managing director of Vision Mechatronics.

“There are still some stages of evaluation to complete before we can pinpoint the proven lithium reserve in the Salal-Haimana deposit. If it turns out to be sizeable, it could help India reduce its reliance on lithium imports in the future and benefit stationary and EV battery manufacturing. Additionally, it may support the nation’s attempts to dominate the world in manufacturing… To fully become independent, the next stage is to expand the capacity for processing raw materials and minerals,” added Raman Bhatia, founder & managing director of Servotech Power Systems.

Lithium processing

It’s important to know that lithium does not occur in elemental form in nature as it’s highly reactive. It is found in hard rocks and brines in compound form. While there are many known lithium-containing rock deposits, lithium is usually produced from pegmatite deposits as these have the largest concentrations of lithium-containing minerals. Spodumene (Li2O, Al2O3. 4SiO2), a lithium mineral derived from pegmatite rock, has a high lithium content in the form of Li2O (8.03%) and is, therefore, the most widely exploited for lithium. The lithium reserves in million tonnes are estimated by considering an average percentage of Li2O in lithium-bearing deposits such as pegmatites.

Lithium is also extracted from brines of some very salty lakes, again in compound form.

The lithium-containing salt brines or rock deposits are processed/treated to remove unwanted contents. The next process is the conversion into lithium carbonates through a series of refining and additive processes and then lithium hydroxide with subsequent steps if needed.

While lithium carbonate finds application in various industries, lithium hydroxide is especially suited for electric vehicle batteries.

Australia tops in annual lithium production capacity, followed by Chile. China is the third-largest producer, hosting around 60% of the world’s battery-grade lithium refining capacity.

Building the capability

Currently, Manikaran Lithium, an arm of New Delhi-headquartered power trading company Manikaran Power Ltd, is perhaps the only company with known progress on lithium refining in India. It is setting up the proposed lithium refinery in Gujarat to produce battery-grade lithium hydroxide. It intends to source high-quality spodumene concentrate from across the world and use locally sourced reagents to make battery-grade lithium hydroxide in India.

Shah says the processing [of mined lithium minerals and conversion into lithium bicarbonate] requires a significant investment. However, it’s not very complicated and can be quickly built up. 

“In fact, with the focus of our government on building the ecosystem in India, we may be looking at not just processing the lithium that we have mined in J&K but becoming a global refinery for lithium from across the world. This is the first time we may have gotten a handle on this electrification game by this discovery, and I am optimistic that India will be in a game-changing position in the upcoming five to six years from now. We might have just found our own axis around which the Earth will spin,” he adds.

Apart from the lack of lithium refining capacity, there are concerns about mining operations’ ecological impacts.   

“The discovery of lithium reserves in the Jammu & Kashmir region is a big win for India. It will not only boost India’s electrification journey but will also put India among the top 5 countries in terms of lithium reserves worldwide. However, it is imperative to consider that lithium mining is extremely water-consuming and hazardous to nature. To generate one tonne of lithium, it needs more than 500,000 gallons of water, which causes a lot of social and ecological problems. For India, it’s important to build infrastructure that supports sustainable and eco-friendly lithium refining,” Nitin Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Attero, told pv magazine.

Gupta adds that the discovery of lithium resources presents a great opportunity for India to become atmanirbhar [self-reliant] in lithium and also export to the rest of the world!


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