‘India not realising potential of rare earth industry’

Beach Minerals

Oct 20 2016

‘India not realising potential of rare earth industry’

NEW DELHI: The Indian rare earth industry, potentially worth Rs 90,000 crore in annual turnover, lies wasted and underused, according to industry representatives.

As per estimates by experts belonging to the Beach Minerals Producers Association, the rare earth mineral downstream industry can net a capital employment of about Rs 121,000 crore, including Rs 50,000 crore worth of foreign exchange.

Rare earths are a special class of 17 elements that have extensive uses across various industries including computer and IT, clean energy systems, healthcare, defence production, advanced transportation services and many others.

Significant rare earths minerals found in India include ilmenite, sillimanite, garnet, zircon, monazite and rutile, collectively called Beach Sand Minerals (BSM). India has almost 35 per cent of the world’s total beach sand mineral deposits.

Their importance lies in their unique electronic, optical and magnetic characteristics, which cannot be matched by any other metal or synthetic substitute.

However, the industry in India has barely registered momentum.

“In 1998, they started freeing up the industry and in 2006, those minerals were taken off the prescribed substances list and for some reason, they have recently been put back on. So, the country has actually gone backwards. There is no justification,” said Grant Smith, director-overseas operations at V V Minerals. “No one is getting the licences. It has been reserved specifically for PSUs through the DAE (department of atomic energy). So, at the moment, it is only the IndiaRare Earths and the Kerala operations.”

Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IRE) is operating the mineral sands separation plant at Chavara in Kerala to produce some rare earth minerals. Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd (KMML), a Kerala state government undertaking, is also carrying out the mining of the beach sands minerals.

These minerals are not literally ‘rare’. They are called so as they tend to occur together in nature as part of the same ore and are difficult to find as standalone minerals. And this is the prime issue with the rare earth mining industry.

Monazite has as one of its constituents thorium and uranium, though in small quantities, these are radioactive elements making monazite a restricted ‘atomic’ mineral.

“There is a perception here in India that monazite is an atomic mineral. It is actually not. Monazite is just a mineral that contains thorium and very very small amounts of uranium. But the major constituent in monazite is rare earth,” said Smith. “In today’s world, China controls over 95 per cent of the rare earth market. India is not realizing any potential. You have to separate the mineral monazite from its constituents. None of the other rare earths have any thorium in them. They are associated in the ore body but not in the actual mineral.”

C Swamydas, chief advisor for V V Minerals, explained how proposals have been given where they are willing to take on all the cost of setting up the plant, and even pay to let the atomic energy department put its own people process monazite. “We shall give the thorium (produced) to the government for free. They can store it for future use.”

Thorium is the basis of India’s three-stage nuclear power programme, which utilises thorium as fuel for the third stage i.e. the advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR).

Smith also stressed on the versatility of rare earth minerals. “It is a big investment. But in the overall size of the market, it is not that high. This is about downstream manufacturing, it is about building computer hardware, hand tools, air conditioning units…it is about building the end-user products,” he said. “It is not about the element itself. It is about improving the manufacturing base of India.”


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