Advanced Materials: For Propelling India’s Technological Leadership

02 Nov 2022

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of our Independence, our Honorable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, while addressing the Nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort added Jai Anusandhan to the slogan of ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan’. He called for a strong push to India’s research and innovation capability in the march towards AtmaNirbharta, so as to add significantly to the already considerable technological strength of India.

He asked the nation and its citizens to embrace ‘Panch Pran’ in order to propel ourselves into the orbit of developed nations by 2047: India @100. India is expected to register a compounded annual growth rate of 7 to 8% during the period 2022 to 2030 and being projected to emerge among the top three largest economies of the world. For this dream to come true, technological leadership will have to be a critical imperative.

One of the key components of technological leadership is leadership in Advanced Materials. Advanced Materials are at the cutting-edge of the world’s technological frontiers, as they are beginning to play a vital role in every aspect of our lives. The major scientific advances of the twenty-first century will be laid in the foundation of the development of Advanced Materials.  Advanced Materials have therefore the potential to shape the future of India and play a massive role in the transition to a low carbon, knowledge-based economy.

Advanced Materials are engineered materials created through specialized processes that enhance the functionality, durability, safety, and environmental compatibility of all devices, machinery, products, and services. They outperform conventional materials as they contain properties that are vastly superior, thereby creating opportunities for new age products and literally having the potential to convert the impossible to the possible! Advanced Materials cover a spectrum of materials such as Graphene, Titanium, Ceramics, Biomaterials, Rare Earth Elements (REE) and many more.

One of the subsets of Advanced Materials i.e.,REEs, which are a group of 17 elements including the 15 Lanthanides plus Scandium and Yttrium play a significant role in the strategic applications of electric mobility, space, atomic energy, defence and many more. The demand for these elements is on the rise for many applications in modern manufacturing, including electric vehicles, renewable energy applications and hi-tech electronics. For example, Neodymium, one of the REE’s is used to make powerful magnets for use in electronics, automobile components, wind turbines, aeronautics and lasers.

However, presently India and many other countries including US, Japan and the EU nations are heavily import dependent for most REEs. If India is not able to explore, mine and process these minerals, it will have to depend on a handful of countries, especially China in many critical areas of strategic importance. This could become similar to what our dependence has been on a few countries for oil, especially from a geopolitical and economic point of view.

Interestingly, India has great potential for domestic production possessing the fourth highest reserves of REEs in the world. In order to reduce our reliance on imports, we as a nation need to take specific actions at near, mid and long term, such as:

Identify key REE materials such as Neodymium to focus upon at the national level and develop roadmaps/ vision documents from mining to commercial use.
Create a budget pool and encourage industry to invest more to set up ventures to produce Rare Earths and magnets etc.
Invite project proposals from collaborative teams comprising of industry, academia, Government (research labs) & MSMEs.
Ensure Technology Readiness Level (TRL) based funding mechanism to enable funding at the Basic stage to Universities & Research Labs; at the Pilot stage to Govt. Research Labs & Industry Labs and at the Commercial stage to Industry. Govt and Industry need to co-fund to de-risk technology scale up.
Promote domestic production units of REE downstream value-added products, such as rare earth permanent magnets, battery, metallurgy, catalysts, ceramics etc. These along with usages in strategic sectors such as aerospace & defense and atomic energy account for about 70% of the global demand of REEs by volume.

Advanced Materials can therefore shape tomorrow’s Atmanirbhar India sustainably. It is important to develop a mindset of mining and processing of REEs and other Advanced Materials in India with a sense of urgency; for a global market through strengthening technological capabilities, advocating indigenous development, conducive regulations and progressive financial incentives. A collaborative approach by industry, academia and Government (labs) would help bring out solutions for shaping tomorrow’s future with safer, cheaper, faster, technologically Advanced Materials that meet the requirements of a low carbon, knowledge based, circular economy.

The article has been contributed by Vipin Sondhi, Chairman, CII National Mission on Technology, Innovation and Research and Former MD and CEO, Ashok Leyland and JCB India Pvt Ltd.