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Lithium and its Distribution across the Globe

  • Category
    Geography
  • Published
    22nd Sep, 2021

Context

Argentina the fourth-largest producer of Lithium metal is now speeding up the process of mineral exploitation. Till now the extraction was done sluggishly due to high tax rates, red tape and rampant inflation.

Background

  • The growing demand for white gold is climbing new height every day due to it being the ultralight battery metal.
  • The other reason for the spike has been the global rush towards environmentally friendly modes of transport.
    • Among the top lithium producing countries, Argentina comesfourth in the list. This could make Argentina an important player in the electric vehicle supply chain.

Analysis

Increasing demand for lithium metal:

  • Increased applicability: In order to take advantage of renewable energy, the need for bulk energy storage applications has been increasing. This includes electric vehicles (EVs) and backup electric storage systems.
  • Good life: Lithium-ion based batteries have a good rate of charging and they last longer.
  • Higher energy density: In addition to this, the energy density of the Li-ion batteries is higher.
  • Wide usage: Being primarily used in batteries, it also finds its use in glass, ceramics, rocket fuel and lasers.

About the Metal

  • Lithium is a metal of utmost importance. It is everywhere today.
  • A soft, silvery metal. It has the lowest density of all metals. It reacts vigorously with water.
  • Lithium does not occur as the metal in nature, but is found combined in small amounts in nearly all igneous rocks and in the waters of many mineral springs.
  • Spodumene, petalite, lepidolite, and amblygonite are the more important minerals containing lithium.
  • Most lithium is currently produced in Chile, from brines that yield lithium carbonate when treated with sodium carbonate.
  • The metal is produced by the electrolysis of molten lithium chloride and potassium chloride.

Lithium Triangle in Latin America:

  • Lithium reserves have been found in all the continents but Chile, Argentina and Bolivia together are referred to as the “Lithium Triangle”- holding underneath in its salt flats more than 75 percent of the world supply.
Natural salt pans or salt flats are the large flat area of ground covered with salt and other minerals. They are usually found in deserts, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the largest salt flat in the world. They are not like salt evaporation ponds, which are artificial. Wind and water work in tandem to create a flat surface of salt.
  • The Lithium Triangle being a part of the dry landscape makes the extraction of lithium a complicated process, as the miners have to drill holes in the salt flats in order to pump mineral-rich brine to the surface.
  • The mineral-rich brine is then made to evaporate for months resulting in the residue of manganese, borax and lithium salts.
  • These salts are then filtered again and left to evaporate once more.
  • It takes 12 to 18 months for the filtration process to complete and then the lithium carbonate can be extracted.

Story of Argentina so far:

  • In the ancestral land of Atacama’s lies the stockpiles of white gold (silvery-white alkali metal),e., Lithium metal is worth of billions of dollars.
  • Since 2018, the economy of Argentina is in crisis. It was the time when it approached to IMF for a $ 57 billion loan. It has faced many economic challenges, including rapid depreciation of the currency, economic contraction and a high rate of inflation.
  • Argentina has an excellent source of lithium and it has the potential to compensate for the macroeconomic instability of the country.

India’s stake involved in Argentina:

  • KABIL has inked a pact with an Argentine firm to jointly look for the possibilities of finding lithium in a South American country.
  • KhanijBidesh India limited (KABIL), a joint venture was set up in 2019 by three state-owned companies, National Aluminium Company Limited (NALCO), Hindustan Copper Limited (HCL) and Mineral Exploration Corporation Limited (MECL) in equity participation of 40:30:30 respectively. Its mandate is to acquire strategic minerals assets like lithium and cobalt abroad. It is also exploring the other two countries of the lithium triangle, namely Bolivia and Chile.
  • This can potentially decrease our dependency on China as the key source of both raw material and cells.

Lithium reserves in India:

  • During 2021-22 Geological Survey of India (GSI) has carried out 7 projects on Lithium in Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Jammu & Kashmir and Rajasthan. However, the resource of lithium has not yet been augmented by GSI.
  • Researchers at the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD)for Exploration and Research,which is a constituent of Department Atomic Energy (DAE) has estimated lithium reserves of 14,100 tonnes in a small patch of land surveyed in Southern Karnataka’s Mandya district.
Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) has the mandate of surveying, prospecting and developing of resources of uranium, thorium, niobium, tantalum, lithium, beryllium and Rare Earth Elements (REE) as these minerals are required for supporting the Nuclear Power Programme of India.
  • Exploratory work has been done for extracting lithium from brine pools of Rajasthan and Gujarat have been published.
  • The reports of mica belts of Odisha and Chhattisgarh have also been published. There are pegmatite (igneous rock) belts. Most of the pegmatites have a composition of quartz, feldspar, and mica.

Other available options:

  • Toyota’s solid-state battery: Toyota is the leader when it comes to holding the maximum number of patents involving solid-state batteries. If everything goes according to plans it is going to be the first company to sell an EV with a solid-state battery. It is planning to launch a prototype this year.
  • Apple battery tech: Apple is targeting 2024 to unveil its breakthrough battery technology which could radically reduce the cost of batteries.
  • Quantum Scape’s solid-state battery: It’s a California based battery start-up, with financial backing from Volkswagen AG. They are the leading developers of solid-state lithium metal batteries.
  • Tesla’s new tabless battery: The tab is that part of the battery which makes the connection between the cell and what it is powering. These cells are also called 4860 cells. According to Tesla it can dramatically reduce the cost of EVs and bring its pricing at par with the conventionally powered ones.

 Conclusion:

Climate has caused the world to bend its knees. In the pursuit of moving towards an environmentally friendly lifestyle, EVs are being projected as a potential solution. India is home to some of the most polluted cities in the world and may not be in a position to rapidly transform its fuel-based vehicles to EVs. We have to depend on external supplies for lithium metal and this makes us vulnerable to imports.  We have set 350 GW by 2030 as our renewable energy goal. Steps like PLI (Production Linked Incentive) scheme for manufacturing ACC (Advanced Chemistry Cell) batteries goes a long way. However, India does not have enough reserves of lithium to achieve its targets. We have to speed up its discovery and exploitation in India and abroad (initiatives like KABIL) to make India self-reliant in the renewable energy sector.

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