India to run short of high-tech minerals

They are necessary for clean-energy applications and for manufacturing high-end products.

August 05, 2016 01:17 am | Updated 10:16 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

India will be woefully short of critical minerals necessary for developing clean-energy applications, infrastructure for its solar mission and for manufacturing high-technology products in the future. The country will be heavily dependent on China in the coming years to source these materials for its manufacturing sector, says a report commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology.

The study, conducted by the think-tank Council on Energy Environment and Water, identifies 12 minerals out of 49 that were evaluated as ‘most critical’ for India’s manufacturing sector by 2030. These are beryllium, chromium, germanium, limestone, niobium, graphite, rare earths, rhenium, strontium, tantalum and zirconium. Other minerals like limestone and graphite, while currently abundantly available in India, are deemed ‘critical’ because extractable resources could be scarce in the future.

For others, the report says, India is 100 per cent import-dependent for seven out of 12 identified critical minerals and does not have any declared resources for them, except light rare-earths (found along with monazite sands) and beryllium. Rare earths are a group of 17 minerals necessary for making everything from nuclear reactors to flat-screen televisions, and, China currently controls 94 per cent of their global supply.

Firming up trade India, therefore, will need to firm up diplomatic trade channels and long-term supply contracts, the authors of the report advise.

The researchers gauged future demand and possible shortage of the minerals by assuming that India’s manufacturing sector would mirror historical growth trends in developed countries. Manufacturing contributes 17-18% of India's economy, though this is currently dominated by low-value industries.

The pricey minerals are used in industries and sectors such as aerospace, automobiles, cameras, defence, entertainment systems, laptops, medical imaging, nuclear energy, and smartphones, and, China is currently a leading global supplier for six out of the 12 mineral resources identified as critical for India by 2030.

Though India is endowed with vast mineral resources — it is among the top five nations with reserves of rare-earth minerals — its potential is untapped, the report observes. For instance, minerals and metals such as bismuth, cadmium, gallium, germanium, indium, molybdenum, rhenium, selenium and tin are generally recovered as a by-product during processing of primary ores (lead, zinc, copper, molybdenum and aluminum).

‘Lost opportunity’ “India has high production for these primary metals, yet no sign of by-product recovery [except tin] is evident so far. This is a lost opportunity, and demands suitable R&D interventions and policy support,” Mr. Vaibhav Gupta, Programme Lead, CEEW and lead author of the report, told The Hindu .

Supplies of several key elements were also unlikely to substantially increase in the coming decades “unless there is some big technology breakthrough…it takes a lot to develop mines,” he pointed out.

The CEEW study comes on the heels of the National Mineral Exploration Policy, 2016 (NMEP).

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