Khanij Bidesh India Ltd (KABIL), a joint venture of state-run miners, has inked India’s first overseas lithium exploration and mining deal involving five blocks in Argentina, setting off New Delhi’s overseas hunt for the critical mineral to loosen China’s stranglehold on a key element of energy transition."The deal will help India strengthen lithium supplies, while developing lithium mining and downstream sectors of both the countries. It will also facilitate diversification of supply chain for critical materials towards achieving Global Net Zero goals," coal and mines minister Prahlad Joshi said after signing of the agreement on Monday.The US Geological Survey puts total lithium reserves globally at just 80.7 million tonnes. Nearly 54% of India's lithium imports are from China, which hogs 80% of global supply. Available data shows India imported worth over Rs 6,000 crore, including Rs 3,500 crore worth from China, in 2020-21.The agreement comes in the backdrop of India’s entry to the US-led Mineral Security Partnership (MSP) aimed at accelerating the development of diverse and sustainable critical energy minerals supply chains globally.

MSP was created in 2021 as a bulwark against China’s use of its near-total control over the supply chain for coercive diplomacy. Critical minerals like lithium are crucial for energy transition as these are used in batteries for electric vehicles and items ranging from mobiles to laptops. Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Sweden, the UK, the US and the European Union are its members.According to the agreement, KABIL and CAMYEN will jointly explore and mine five blocks covering 15,703 hectares in the Catamarca province with a project cost of Rs 200 crore. The agreement will additionally help acquire technical expertise and operational experience of brine type lithium exploration, exploitation and extraction.

The blocks are, Cortadera-I, VI, VII, and VII as well as Cateo-2022-01810132, the ministry said.

KABIL was formed in 2019 as a joint venture of state-run miners NALCO, HCL and MECL to source strategic minerals such as lithium and cobalt etc. from abroad. It had signed three MoUs with Argentina’s state-run companies JEMSE, CAMYEN and YPF. CAMYEN was the first to share information regarding two prospective lithium projects in la Aguada and El Indio in Catamarca.

KABIL also has MoU with detailed collaborative framework with Australia’s Critical Mineral Office, Department of Industry, Science and Resources for carrying out joint due diligence and further joint investment in Li & Co mineral assets in that country.

Argentina forms part of the ‘Lithium Triangle’ in the Andes with Bolivia and Chile. The lithium is present in salt pans in the Atacam desert and neighbouring arid zones in the region. (TOI)