Mint Explainer: The significance of India's quest for rare earth elements

Bastnaesite, a mineral that contains rare earth elements
Bastnaesite, a mineral that contains rare earth elements

Summary

  • They are crucial to helping the country transition to clean energy and become a manufacturing hub for semiconductors and other electronics

Minerals containing rare earth elements have become some of the most prized resources globally as countries rush to develop semiconductor industries and transition to clean energy. The Indian government, too, is looking to increase domestic production of rare earth elements. Here’s a look at the state of the country’s rare earth reserves.

Where have rare earth reserves been found in India so far?

The Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD), a unit of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), has found 13.07 million tonnes of in-situ monazite (55-60% of which comprises oxides of rare earth elements) along the coasts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and in inland parts of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, according to a recent response by the DAE in parliament.

Another 7.37 lakh tonnes of rare earth element oxides have been discovered in Ambadungar, Chhota Udepur district, Gujarat, and 36,945 in Bhatikhera, Barmer district, Rajasthan. About 2,000 tonnes of heavy mineral concentrate containing 2% xenotime, a phosphate mineral of yttrium and rare earth elements, has been discovered in riverine placer deposits in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

What steps has the government taken to boost rare earth mineral exploration and production?

AMD is exploring coastal, inland and riverine areas of the country for heavy mineral resources, including monazite and xenotime. Since the sources of rare earth minerals in India are radioactive, IREL (formerly Indian Rare Earths Ltd), a unit of the DAE, has been tasked with producing rare earth minerals in India. It has established mining, beneficiation, processing and separation, and extraction capacities. In June, the ministry of mines released a list of 33 minerals critical to the economy. The list also includes several rare earth elements.

What are some of the ongoing exploration projects for rare earth elements?

AMD is currently collecting xenotime-bearing heavy mineral concentrate in its unit in Chhattisgarh and has a stockpile of 104.913 tonnes. It is also carrying out survey and prospecting operations in hard rock terrains in Rajasthan’s Barmer district, Gujarat’s Chhotaudepur district, Chhattisgarh’s Jashpur district, Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district and Telangana’s Adilabad district. AMD is also searching for monazite in sand deposits along the coast in Kerala’s Alappuzha district and Orissa’s Puri and Bhadrak districts, among others.

How will India's recent inclusion in the US-led Mineral Security Partnership (MSP) boost rare earth mining in India?

India became a member of the MSP in June. The announcement was part of a joint statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden during Modi’s recent US visit.

MSP is a strategic grouping of 13 entities – Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, the UK, the US, the European Union, Italy and India. It aims to catalyse public and private investment in critical supply chains of minerals, including rare earth elements. India’s inclusion is a significant step towards fulfilling its ambitions of shifting clean energy, and developing a domestic electronics and semiconductor industry.

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