India’s sole rare-earths producer IREL (India) Ltd wants to boost its mining capacity by four times in the coming decade to help the country lock in supplies of key minerals for its clean-energy transition.

State-owned IREL (India) Ltd. aims to mine 50 million tonnes a year of rare-earths bearing ore by end-2032, up from 10 million tonnes now,  Chairman D. Singh said in an interview. That would it allow it to produce 13,000 tons annually of refined rare earths, versus 5,000 tons at present.

Key challenges

Like other major economies, India is grappling with the issue of securing supplies of materials like rare earths and lithium that will be needed in bigger quantities in the shift away from fossil fuels. Geopolitical tensions also mean there’s concern about China’s grip over commodities used in everything from electric vehicles to wind turbines.

“In future, the non-availability of these materials could hold back India from achieving its clean energy goals,” Singh said, while urging authorities to fast-track permits for the company’s planned new mines. 

Building a domestic rare earths industry in India has numerous challenges: from a historically cautious approach to mine permitting, to the low quality of ore and relatively undeveloped downstream capacity. IREL’s own refineries are stuck at no more than 40% of capacity because there’s not enough mined ore to feed them, he said.

India holds the world’s fifth-biggest rare earths reserves but is a only a modest producer, according to US government data. 

China’s dominance

Singh also said he hoped the country could develop more downstream capacity for rare-earths, noting that this was key to China’s dominance of global activity.

“While mining, processing and refining capacity is available in India, the midstream and downstream segments in this sector are absent,” he said. It would cost between ₹ 3,000 crore ($365 million) and ₹5,000 crore to develop downstream plants to absorb IREL’s planned output, he said.

At the moment, Toyotsu Rare Earths India Pvt., a unit of Japan’s Toyota Tsusho Corp., is the only private refiner, and takes concentrate supplied by IREL, Singh said.

The quality of ore in India presents a major challenge, with China’s ore grades often some 100 times higher than those present in India, according to Singh. That makes processing more demanding and costly, he said. When IREL tendered a few years ago for partners to build a downstream plant, there were no takers despite some initial interest.

IREL profile

IREL — a unit of India’s Department of Atomic Energy — was established in 1950 to process monazite that hold rare earths and thorium used in the nuclear industry. It operates eight mines across the Indian states of Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and is in the process of adding another three leases in the next four years.