USGS secures $16 million in funding to map critical mineral potential in southwest United States

September 30, 2022

Through funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are teaming up to map portions of the southwest United States (including parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico) for critical mineral potential using airborne hyperspectral imaging. The $16 million, five-year research project is funded by the USGS Earth Mapping Resource Initiative (Earth MRI), through investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

"This exciting scientific effort is made possible through President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s investments and will enable NASA and the USGS to leverage our unique capabilities toward a common goal,” USGS Director David Applegate said in a statement. “The data we’re collecting will be foundational for not only critical minerals research but also for a wide range of other scientific applications, from natural hazards mitigation to ecosystem restoration.”

“This exciting new project is just one example of the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to a clean energy future,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “NASA has a long history of Earth observation that shows us how the planet is responding to climate change. This project builds on our 60-year legacy, and can show us where to look for the resources that support our transition to a clean energy economy. With our partners at USGS, NASA has led the way in developing these Earth observation systems to gather information to measure and monitor the environment and climate change.”

The research project will use NASA’s Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) high-altitude Earth remote sensing platform to collect hyperspectral data over large regions in the arid and semi-arid western United States. Hyperspectral data are reflections of light from surfaces, measured across hundreds of frequency bands. These measurements capture not only light visible to our eyes, but also bands of light beyond the visible, into the infrared.

These data can be very useful in studying surface rock formations because each mineral in rocks has its own unique reflection characteristics across the various bands of light. Looking for these patterns or “spectral signatures” can help identify locations with high potential for mineral resources.

Hyperspectral imaging has a long history of use in mineral research. USGS scientists have previously used hyperspectral data to analyze mineral potential in Alaska. In addition, the USGS and NASA have a long history of collaborating on collecting and analyzing hyperspectral data, including the 17-year Earth Observing-1 mission. These data are also useful for understanding a variety of other earth science and biological issues including geologic acid mine drainage, debris flows, agriculture, wildfires and biodiversity.

The research will include evaluating critical mineral potential in mine waste. Mine waste is receiving increasing attention for its potential to contain critical mineral resources, particularly those that are most often produced as byproducts, while also offering an opportunity for remediation of contaminated sites. For instance, the USGS recently analyzed mine tailings from historical iron production in the Adirondacks of New York for rare earth element potential.

This data collection effort is funded by the USGS Earth MRI project, which is a partnership between the USGS and state geological surveys to modernize our understanding of the nation’s fundamental geologic framework and mineral resources through new geologic maps, geophysical and topographic surveys, and geochemical sampling. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding has accelerated this new mapping in areas with potential for hosting critical mineral resources both still in the ground and in mine wastes. Earlier this year, $74 million was allocated to advance critical minerals mapping through the USGS Earth Mapping Resources Initiative, thanks to resources provided from the Law.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is advancing scientific innovation through a $510.7 million investment for the USGS to support integrated mapping and interpretation of mineral resources data, the preservation of data from geochemical samples from Earth MRI, and construction of a USGS energy and minerals research center in Golden, CO.



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