Nevada a hot bed in the search for critical minerals

USGS and Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology collaborate on mapping projects across the state.
A photo of a helicopter flying above Nevada land, with a snow-capped mountain in the background

When the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was passed in late 2021, the U.S. Geological Survey received an influx of funding to support the mapping of areas with potential deposits of critical minerals. Since then, Nevada has hosted a series of geological mapping surveys, the latest of which was an electromagnetic survey recently completed in the McDermitt Caldera region last month.

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The survey came as part of the Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI), a USGS program that received a $320 million boost from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, with $64 million per year to be spent over five years. These projects demonstrate the ongoing efforts to understand how the United States can establish reliable sources of the critical minerals necessary for national security and economic resilience purposes, as well as fueling an energy transition in response to climate change. 

“These surveys essentially collect information about conductivity structure of the subsurface,” said Lyndsay Ball, a research geophysicist at the Geology, Geophysics, and Geochemistry Science Center in Denver, Colorado. “The electromagnetic results let us look into the subsurface to depths of up to three to 500 meters. So we’re looking on the order of 1,000, maybe 1,600 feet.”

Conductivity, also called resistivity, determines how easily an electric current can move through rock. By flying low-level helicopters equipped with sensors resembling a hula-hoop, scientists can capture electromagnetic signals from the subsurface that help them map the conductivity of rock and fluids within the Earth’s subsurface. 

“Different rocks have different abilities to conduct electric currents, some rocks are just more conductive than others,” Ball said. “Also [mapping rocks] that are containing more saline fluids, groundwater salinity, in addition to clay content, and some types of minerals can also make rocks more conductive. So we’re able to map essentially brines and clay units, both of which are really relevant to some types of critical minerals in the basin range.”

A screenshot showing the results of a survey. The landscape is shown with several lines of various colors on it, depicting the types of mapped faults.
Airborne electromagnetic results appear as data displayed using resistivity, which is simply an inverse of conductivity. This data example is from the northern Mojave Desert of eastern California. The full data report can be found here. Image courtesy of Dr. Lyndsay Ball, Research Geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Mapping surveys like these can indicate conditions favorable to the presence of critical minerals in the subsurface. The Energy Act of 2020 defines a “critical mineral” as a non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic or national security of the U.S. and which has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption. The primary target of the McDermitt Caldera survey was lithium, a critical mineral necessary for lithium-ion batteries used to power everything from laptops and cellphones, to electric vehicles. 

Editor’s Note: Lithium Americas is in the process of developing a lithium mine operation on the southern end of the McDermitt Caldera. The project has been criticized by environmentalists, ranchers and local tribes, but has also secured funding from General Motors.

“Brine and clay can have economical concentrations of lithium if the other geologic conditions are right,” Ball said. “So if we can find with these methods basically conductive brines and clays, we can essentially detect things that could potentially be hosts for lithium.”

A photo of the vast Nevada landscape, with a truck in the foreground
An overhead view across Thacker Pass to the south wall of McDermitt Caldera. The geologic mapping project over McDermitt Caldera was just completed last month. Image courtesy of Chris Henry of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

According to Jim Faulds, director of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, understanding the ties between how lithium deposits develop and the geological history of Nevada demonstrates why the Great Basin region is a potential source for critical minerals.

“Water flows into these basins, gets trapped, evaporates and that produces these lithium brines that help to concentrate mineral deposits like lithium,” Faulds said. “Lithium can be caught up in brines in the current basins, or perhaps it was trapped in basins 10 million years ago, and now you can access it through these old lithium clays that are really old lake beds from older basins. Nevada has sort of the perfect combination of geologic features that make it one of the most important areas for mineral deposits, really in the entire world, and certainly within the U.S.” 

The McDermitt Caldera survey is the third project to be conducted in the region, following similar mapping surveys near Clayton Valley and Railroad Valley.

A general geologic map of McDermitt Caldera
A general geologic map of McDermitt Caldera, the third location in Nevada that recently underwent geologic mapping initiatives as part of the Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI). Image courtesy of Steve Castor and Chris Henry of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

“By understanding some of these systems where we know that there are concentrations of lithium, we can better understand the geophysical signatures around those deposits,” Ball said. “Then by collecting data across the state, which has a lot of places that are prospective for similar types of systems to exist, we can see where those geophysical signatures may be similar or where they may be different. That information altogether gives us a better understanding of the geology, and our ability to relate geologic maps from the surface to what [minerals] we might expect in the subsurface.”

The information provided through these surveys can also show potential risks or environmental impacts of a particular area subject to development.

“These geologic maps that we’re producing also provide important data [for] local flood hazards or local earthquake hazards that are also important in terms of planning the infrastructure that might be associated with certain development,” Faulds said. “That information will be very important for those making decisions on what can be developed and what can’t be developed. It could be part of a particular area that might be environmentally sensitive, or it could be a particular deposit somewhere in a state [where] there could be some environmental impacts that possibly we would want to avoid.”

Even if survey results determine that subsurface deposits of critical minerals are not present, that information is still useful in prioritizing where to focus future research and resource development efforts. 

“It’s important for state surveys to do these framework studies in order to establish where these resources occur, or where they do not occur,” Faulds said. “In some cases, [critical minerals] might be present in an area, but perhaps in today’s economics, they’re not commercial at this point. So it’s a good investment to understand that in terms of where mineral companies, mining companies and so on can devote their efforts.”

Conditions favorable to the presence of critical minerals can be found in ore throughout the state of Nevada, such as this image of a lithium ore found in Thacker Pass. Image courtesy of Chris Henry of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

The data collected from these surveys will serve the needs for a broad scope of stakeholders, from land management agencies and scientists to environmental groups and businesses.

“There are three stakeholder communities: the land management agencies, the USGS as a science agency, and then the [mineral] exploration companies,” said Warren Day, science coordinator of Earth MRI. “NGOs would also use that information and are interested in what would come out of an environmental impact statement or a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) assessment. It’s a kind of basic science information that we give to everybody so that they can use it, whatever their purposes are.”

Now that these flight surveys are completed, the next steps of assessing and compiling the data into geologic maps will take some time to process. 

“We’ll be doing a bunch of modeling work that basically builds those conductivity cross-sections, and that information will all be released publicly through the USGS ScienceBase Data Repository,” Ball said. “That’ll be digital data that’s freely available to anyone to download. We’ll try to get that out within 12 months from now and it’s a push to get there, but we’re pretty hopeful that that’s going to happen.”

In the meantime, Faulds and his colleagues at the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology will continue competing for additional funding to explore other areas in the state that could be prime candidates for surveys like the one recently completed at McDermitt Caldera. Whether it’s looking for possible lithium deposits at other closed basins like Teel’s Marsh, cobalt deposits near Stillwater or tungsten deposits between Lovelock and Winnemucca; Nevada can play an outsized role in the critical mineral economy. 

However, Faulds also stresses that in order to maximize Nevada’s potential in this regard, these resources must be developed in a responsible way – proving another reason why the data collected from these surveys will continue to be important moving forward.

“Nevada really is well-poised to contribute significantly [with critical minerals], which will be important for mitigating the effects of climate change, but also important for the diversification and stability of our economy going forward for the next several decades,” Faulds said. “We have the tools now, to do this carefully. The more we know about the extent of these deposits and where they’re located across the entire state, or in a particular area, then the better job we can do in terms of developing in the wisest way to mitigate impacts.”

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