The proposed institute will pave the way for the establishment of new industries to produce value-added materials from the beach sand minerals.

Kerala is gearing up to fuel the country’s transition to clean energy technologies. A few years from now, the State could be a key supplier of critical rare earth elements that find application in green energy technologies including hybrid vehicles, wind power generators, and photovoltaic thin films.

The Critical Minerals Research Institute (CMRI) to be set up by the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment (KSCSTE) will focus on better utilisation and value addition of beach sand minerals such as ilmenite and monazite abundantly available along the Kerala coast. Envisaged as a centre of excellence, the institute will develop technology for advanced processing of beach sand minerals and production of value-added materials. It will also train professionals in the mining and mineral engineering sectors.

According to the report of a committee set up by the KSCSTE to formulate the blueprint of the new institute, even though Kerala has vast deposits of heavy minerals such as monazite and ilmenite, they are not being used to manufacture value-added products to the desired extent. Citing economic projections, the committee says that valuable critical materials could experience worldwide supply deficits of up to 30 per cent by 2016.

Rising demand

The global demand for rare earths has soared from 130,000 tonnes in 2008 to 200,000 tonnes in 2011. The proposed institute will pave the way for the establishment of new industries to produce value-added materials from the beach sand minerals.

The report says the global demand for clean energy and faster, smaller, and lighter digital products would make rare earth elements more relevant in future. Wind turbines, one of the fastest-growing sources of emissions-free electricity, rely on magnets that use the rare earth element neodymium. Neodymium magnets are also found in computer hard disks, cell phones, and hybrid electric vehicles.

Similarly, the element dysprosium can be used to produce magnets with only one-tenth the weight of conventional permanent magnets of similar strength while terbium, another such element, can be used to produce energy-efficient lights. Other rare earth materials like lanthanum, europium and yttrium are critical ingredients in energy storage and battery technologies. CMRI will focus on different domain areas like investigation and applied research, advanced R&D and upgradation of existing technology for value-added products from rare earth based beach sand minerals. It is expected to support the development of state of the art technologies for mineral processing, Green energy and high performance materials.

Linkages

The committee headed by C.G. Ramachandran Nair has recommended effective linkages between the government, industry, and research and development institutions on strategically important rare earth and beach sand based mineral sector. V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai, executive vice president, KSCSTE, said CMRI’s mandate would cover a wide range of activities from geological survey, exploration, mining, processing of minerals, development of materials, and product recycling. He said the institute would be located in Thiruvananthapuram or Kollam.