In Mid-April 2019, the Bombay Chapter of the Indian Institute of Metals (IIM) and the Mechanical Engineering Department of IIT Bombay jointly conducted a two-day symposium on Critical Non-Ferrous Metals: Establishing a Value Chain. Speakers from a number of Indian organizations involved in strategic sector activities, including the Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO), the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) were invited to this symposium, during which they deliberated on various pathways for India to attain security of supply in a variety of non-ferrous metals of critical importance.
In general, metals are classified as ‘critical’ based on rarity of source, as well as level of use importance in strategically vital sectors such as defence, nuclear, besides others. A lack of substitutes for certain applications may also lead to a metal being deemed critical. Apart from rare earth-metals (REMs), elements such as Lithium, Niobium, Hafnium, Tantalum, Germanium, Cerium, Antimony, Titanium, Tungsten, Zirconium, Cobalt, Nickel, Tin were all listed as critical during the symposium. Incidentally, the listed non-ferrous metals find uses in everything from electric vehicles to hypersonic demonstrators.
As the proceedings revealed, India does not have primary sources for some metals like Tungsten and Cobalt. Therefore cultivation of multiple reliable sources was deemed important. Now, given that these metals are used in various electronic goods & machine tools, recycling of e-waste and discarded industrial machinery was proposed as a potentially important secondary source for the same. At present, only about 1.5 percent of e-waste is recycled in India, even though this can serve as an important source for a whole range of critical metals beyond just Tungsten and Cobalt. The cost of recycling can easily be justified in light of the huge foreign exchange outgo involved in importing these metals, as of today. As it turns out, indigenous technology to recycle such e-waste is currently available at lab scale, and multiple speakers bemoaned the fact that efforts to scale up the same were still not being pursued seriously. India, currently does not have any e-waste recycling companies using homegrown technology, even though almost 9,500 research & development (R&D) papers related to the topic have already been published by domestic institutes, yet again bringing to the fore the need to build bridges between industry and academia in the country.
In the above context, some speakers highlighted the need for the government to mobilize extant lab scale technology, at the earliest. In their view, this could be done by supporting pilot plant projects and setting up eco-parks using a public-private partnership model. Such eco-parks would contain end-to-end processing facilities to collect, segregate, dismantle and process e-waste as well as certain types of industrial waste. It was revealed that the NITI Ayog is in talks with the Government of Karnataka to setup a pilot plant on these lines.
Participants also felt that the Geological Survey of India (GSI) should expend greater resources in order to map the occurrence of a longer list of metals and minerals across India than before. For instance, though India is poor in some REM categories such as heavy lanthanides, it is nonetheless blessed with rich deposits of several other REMs in the form of beach sands along its long coastline. Various speakers emphasized the need to safeguard and better utilize these sources. Moreover, it was put forth that such data gathered by GSI should be made available to all researchers in the country. This would encourage extraction and refinement efforts either by public or private industry leading to research as well as product development. This would also help cut down imports and aid the cause of strategic autonomy in critical sectors.
Beyond surveys, the lack of critical infrastructure to exploit already identified resources was also posited as a major hurdle in scaling up the ore to product chain. Many speakers actually mentioned that a lack of infrastructure was hindering their own efforts. This, they said, had led to months of avoidable delays that could have been avoided with better procurement and planning. Diligent planning for end-to-end processing and ensuring the adequate provision of infrastructure were identified as prerequisites for attaining security of supply in critical metals. A national mineral policy that identifies critical materials as well as routinely updates a list of such materials was also raised as being long overdue. Indeed, speakers across the board felt that a lack of government interest was being sorely felt, despite many of the listed non-ferrous metals having become critical for Indian strategic sector development for quite some time now. The symposium consensus seemed to be that India needs to constantly revise its materials policy, in order to ensure that commercial exploitation of critical non-ferrous metals are not blocked due to bureaucratic concerns.
At the end of the day, merely reacting to global trends in non-ferrous metals use and applicability, and not having a role in setting them was seen as a weakness. Presently, there is no significant domestic industry to extract and process non-ferrous metals in the country. The symposium therefore reiterated the need for the government to give an immediate push to activities in this arena, since it in is any case characterized by a long gestation period. Speakers felt that projects in critical non-ferrous metals should be considered a long-term strategic play given the unreliable nature of primary sources for many such metals and the tremendous need for them. In fact, it was proposed that the government set up a body that analyses material requirements and seeks to secure them via various means. Since, security of supply in critical non-ferrous metals was going to become as important was said, should be considered as important as one dedicated to pursuing energy security. As such, the deliberations of the symposium will inform an approach paper authored by IIT Bombay which will be submitted to both the NITI Aayog as well as the Prime Minister’s Office.
Sriram Thiagarajan is a Senior Editor at Delhi Defence Review. Follow him on Twitter @sriramthg
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