India plans to step up mapping of rare-earth-mineral reserves over the next two years to boost domestic sources as China is reportedly planning to clamp down on supplies, the top official in the Ministry of Mines said Wednesday.
China, which accounts for 95% of the global rare-earth output, said in July it will reduce export quotas by 40% in 2010 from last year. Rare-earth metals are critical to a variety of technologies ranging from iPhones to flat screen televisions and hybrid cars, as well as for geothermal, wind and solar energy.
“The Chinese event is a signal … to look for rare earths, find out where they are occurring, and what is required to be done in terms of research and development,” Mines Secretary S. Vijay Kumar told Dow Jones Newswires.
“Its a challenge to us, rather than an opportunity. Challenge is that we must develop our own resources… So we need to step up our exploration.”
India is among four or five countries with known reserves of rare-earth minerals, and they are largely found in the country’s beach sands in southern and eastern states. Small quantities also exist inland along the eastern Jharkhand state’s Chhotanagpur Plateau.
“All this time, we did not perhaps focus specifically on this… But clearly now, we have to think long-term,” Mr. Kumar said, without elaborating on how much the country produces and imports.
Some of the country’s beach sands contain monazite that yield thorium, which find application in fuels for nuclear reactors. Its mining is largely controlled by the government’s atomic energy department.
Other beach sands containing monazite yield titanium, a strong and light futuristic metal, and its mining is under the control of the mines ministry.
The country lacks the technology to convert the ore into metal and therefore the ore is used mostly in dyes and paints after processing, Mr. Kumar said.
India produced 122 metric tons of monazite in 2005, according to the last available data with the mines ministry.
The mines ministry has asked the state-run Geological Survey of India, which maps mineral reserves, to undertake a survey to locate all possible reserves of rare-earth minerals, the secretary said. It has also asked the state-run Centre For Techno Economic Options to prepare a detailed report on the status of reserves.
Mr. Kumar said the efforts will give equal emphasis to mapping the minerals inland and on beach sands.
The ministry plans to start exploration, depending on how quickly the agencies complete the data, Mr. Kumar said, adding that the government hopes to begin exploration two years from now or even earlier.
“We are taking advanced action. We need to be able to start the process of research to understand how to extract these minerals,” Mr. Kumar said.
However, he said mining of rare-earth minerals isn’t always commercially viable due to complexities in their extraction.