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NASA and miners face off over lithium deposits at satellite calibration site

There's smartphone batteries to be mined, but at what cost?

NASA's rights to a Nevada desert playa that's used for calibrating Earth-observing satellites is facing a challenge, as lithium miners say they need the land to develop the US battery industry.


The Railroad Valley playa in Nevada (click to enlarge). Pic credit: UCGS

The US Bureau of Land Management in April issued an order giving NASA reserved use of the Railroad Valley (RRV) playa in Nevada for 20 years, but earlier this month Congressman Mark Amodei (R-NV) introduced a bill that would rescind the BLM order, opening the space up for lithium and other mineral extraction. 

He claimed the move to preserve the land was hypocritical of the Biden administration, which has pushed for bringing lithium battery development to the US to help speed the transition away from fossil fuels.

"What about lithium? It is supposedly a goal of the Biden Administration to boost the development of renewable energy technology and reduce carbon in our atmosphere … this is a prime example of this Administration saying one thing and then doing the exact opposite," Amodei said. 

Amodei's bill, HR 3883, had a subcommittee hearing in June, but a vote has yet to be held to advance it to the floor for vote. We reached out to the White House to see if President Biden would be amenable to signing such a bill, but haven't heard back.

No other playa like it

NASA has been using the RRV playa to calibrate satellites used for Earth observation since 1993, the agency said. NASA describes it as "the only location in the United States with all the required qualities for satellite calibration."  

NASA has used the RRV playa to fine tune Earth science instruments including the EMIT mission, the Orbital Carbon Observatory, Suomi-NPP and others. Those and other satellites are used to inform decisions related to weather, agriculture, food security, urban planning, climate change mitigation and emergency prep and response to such data.

"The entire RRV playa with the required surface characteristics (e.g., size, flat, free of vegetation, with a useful and consistent surface color, mostly free of human disturbances, accessible, and under mostly cloud-free skies with low airborne particle concentrations) is used for satellite calibration," it told us.

In its mineral report [PDF] to the BLM as part of its land reservation proposal, NASA asked the Bureau to set aside 22,684 acres of the 55,600-acre playa, or roughly 40 percent. In its broader proposal for the land reservation, NASA said it explored several alternatives, including different calibration methods, alternative sites, and alternative management of the RRV playa, but all were "determined not to meet the purpose and need that prompted NASA's application … to withdraw and reserve public land for its satellite calibration activities."

But the Railroad Valley playa isn't unique only for its satellite-calibrating functions - it's also one of the richest deposits of lithium in the world according to 3 Proton Lithium, which owns mining rights that overlap considerably with the space BLM signed over to NASA.

According to the mining firm, the lithium deposit under RRV playa is one of the 10 largest in the world and the largest in North America, with salt deposits 2,000 feet thick and 23 billion barrels of recoverable brine rich in extractable lithium. 3PL said there's more than 25 million tons of recoverable lithium beneath the playa, which would triple the US' current lithium resources.

"Railroad Valley is home to one of the world's largest deposits of critical minerals and could single handedly secure a 'Made in America' supply chain," said 3PL CEO Vince Ramirez. "The mine and NASA could easily co-exist, but they have refused to engage in discussions, let alone find a path forward that would serve the interests of the federal government, the private sector, and national security," Ramirez added. 

"The fact that it is lithium mining they are trying to stop is a sad irony. NASA studies carbon dioxide, but 3PL eliminates carbon dioxide," the company said in 2021.

How clean can a lithium mine be?

Lithium extraction is a fundamental part of electrification projects, which require immense battery capacity production both for EVs and storage facilities for renewable energy. The replacement of gas-guzzling cars with lithium battery-powered ones would reduce environmental impact, but that doesn't change the fact that lithium extraction is a dirty process.

Lithium is generally extracted from dry salts and from briney water trapped beneath places like the RRV playa. As 3PL mentioned, a lot of the refinement in RRV would involve brine extraction, which traditionally requires large open-air evaporation pits that would marr the playa and make it useless for NASA's purposes. 

Additionally, lithium extraction requires a lot of water - somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.2 million liters to produce one ton of lithium. Nye County, Nevada, where the RRV playa is located and where 3PL would be doing its extractions, is facing drought conditions and has been for some time. 

3PL, which coincidentally or not is headquartered in Amodei's hometown of Carson City, Nevada, has made a number of statements recently about its plans for environmentally-responsible lithium mining in the RRV playa, but all of those statements have come with qualifiers. 

"3PL is developing a safe and environmentally responsible project that will not involve evaporation ponds, open pit mining, or acid leach operations," 3PL said in response to the BLM decision, adding those new methods "will not degrade the playa or disturb the surface in any way." 

In a partnership announcement with Canadian firm Alchemist Mining, Ramirez said that it chose to partner with Alchemist subsidiary LiTHOS to use its in-house pre-treatment process, which he said "could completely eliminate the use of evaporation ponds." 

Note the use of "could" and "developing" - there's no indication lithium mining in RRV playa would kick off with such technology included, which NASA noted in its environmental assessment of the site. 

"NASA is not aware that 3PL has presented any method or technique for extraction and production of brine-based lithium that would guarantee the preservation of the surface integrity of the [playa] required for NASA satellite calibration," NASA said. 

NASA noted that the methods 3PL has touted are possible, and could make the RRV playa land withdrawal unnecessary - but that's not the case now. "Until such time, NASA cannot risk any activities that could damage the surface integrity of the WAA, especially since any damage as a result of mining-related construction would likely permanently alter the playa's surface characteristics."

There's more than just lithium down there

3PL CEO Ramirez said that, even in the absence of the mining technology mentioned, his company has no plans to build pools and otherwise deface the RRV playa. Lithium, in fact, "isn't even in the top 10 most valuable minerals for us," Ramirez told us.

Instead, 3PL said it intends to open 50 foot by 50 foot wells to extract the brine beneath RRV playa, which will be piped via pipeline to an off-site facility for refining elements out of the water that includes boron, molybdenum, sodium, rare earth elements and, of course, lithium. "we're a brine salt mining company and we focus on 10 strategic minerals," Ramirez said.

3PL's Ramirez has several other objections to NASA's assessment, and to its need for the entire land allocation it was granted, he told us in a phone conversation.

When NASA published its initial request, it included claims that 3PL had already opened up pools and made changes to the RRV playa, which Ramirez said simple isn't the case; "they were just photoshopped images," Ramirez told us.

Ramirez also said that NASA's current satellites that use the playa for calibration only require a 10 meter by 10 meter square of land. GEOCarb, a satellite Ramirez said would need the entirety of the 23k acres reserved in the BLM order was cancelled last year, which Ramirez said means "no satellite needs the entire playa for calibration."

A second satellite, Tempo, would need around 3.3k acres to calibrate, but Ramirez said NASA's own documentation claimed Tempo does calibration from space at night with no need for calibration using RRV playa.

NASA told us that it needs the entire area reserved by the BLM because, even though calibration may require a 10x10 meter square, "the area within the playa used at any given time for calibration changes depending on the position of the satellite over land and where the sensor is aimed." Additionally, NASA said future geosynchronous missions will require larger areas for calibration, hence the space can't be disturbed.

NASA disputes the 10x10 meter figure as well, telling The Register that 3PL is wrong to say that. "NASA relies on up to 7,000 acres of land at a given time to calibrate current Earth-observing satellites on orbit," the space agency told us.

In addition, Ramirez said NASA only performed an environmental assessment, not a full environmental impact assessment, which he said allowed NASA to skip a full assessment of minerals in the RRV playa, instead saying that under its plan there would be no impact, as the surface wouldn't be disturbed.

"That was the whole point of doing an assessment," Ramirez said, arguing that without it NASA wasn't forced to consider the potential economic and energy benefits of allowing mining in the playa.

Still, whether the bill will make it out of committee is unclear. Amodei's office told us his bill to open the RRV playa up for lithium mining isn't currently scheduled for a vote to advance it to the House floor. ®

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