Research aims to enhance state’s minerals industry

Don Reiser works on bench scale flotation research at the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Research Institute Coleraine lab.

DULUTH — Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) are working on five pilot projects intended to demonstrate promising technologies to enhance the state’s minerals industry. In 2017, the state legislature appropriated $2.6 million in funding to support this research.

NRRI Executive Director Rolf Weberg said discussions with legislators, stakeholder mining companies, agency colleagues, and university and non-governmental agencies were considered in selecting the pilot projects.

The research engaged more than 60 people between the five projects and involved four steel companies, said Weberg. The projects received bipartisan support at the Legislature, and call for continued support moving forward.

“It’s important for people to realize this is a start of an investment in our next generation economy,” said Weberg. “Sustained investigations and these kinds of questions are the only way to move from argument to debate to solutions.”

NRRI’s role is to “frame the question, do the research and give true solutions,” said Weberg.

The researchers do not make decisions, nor do they advocate a decision, he added.

Here is a brief description of each project:

• Increasing Iron Recovery

NRRI has developed a new floatation process that can recover additional iron minerals at low pH levels, in contrast to the industry proven high-pH selective process.

Magnetic separation is used by taconite operations to recover magnetite iron minerals, but less magnetic iron resources, such as Hematite and goethite, are placed in waste piles.

Identified impact of this project includes recovering additional iron minerals from ores that are available for mining, expand on the types of minable ores to increase total iron resources in Minnesota, and reduce the amount of mining waste.

A shipment of 30 tons of taconite ore samples was shipped to NRRI’s lab in Coleraine last fall and is being tested by researchers.

• Enhance microbial iron release for sulfate removal

“The conversation is that sulfate is a challenge all over the state,” said Weberg.

Agriculture in the southern part of the state, acid rain from western power plants, and suburban mining, he noted.

NRRI’s long-range research involves incorporating microbial processes that will deliver a cost effective and simple way to permanently address sulfate pollution levels in regional waters.

• Identify and apply existing technology to reduce sulfate levels to meet water standards.

The goal of this project is an inexpensive, efficient and easily managed sulfate removal system as an alternative to reverse osmosis.

Pointing out the significant cost of reverse osmosis, Weberg said there is a need for an integrated solution.

“We need technologies — more tools in our toolbox, an integrated solution for things,” he said.

NRRI continues to explore technologies as a possible way to reduce sulfate levels in water, both biologically and chemically.

Future plans call for a test pilot, using water from a northern Minnesota city.

• Enhanced value iron process simulation laboratory

Design and construction of an enhanced value iron process simulation laboratory to be used to define critical variables for processing of specific ore bodies is taking place at NRRI’s minerals processing lab in Coleraine.

This equipment will be used for processing of specific iron ore bodies, identifying economically viable options and reduce risk for investment.

“We looked at challenges in the state with natural resources, and the low hanging fruit was to drive a higher value form of iron,” said Weberg.

Producing higher value iron products will drive participation in a greater share of the electric arc furnace-based steel industry, create jobs and retain value in Minnesota, according to information provided by NRRI.

Electric arc steel production now makes up two-third of national steel production. Traditional taconite pellets cannot be used in electric arc furnaces.

NRRI’s future focus will involve testing on iron resources from the Mesabi Iron Formation. Continued pilot testing will allow researchers to make comparisons to current mining operations.

• Natural Resources Atlas

The concept for creating an atlas was borne from the Legislature’s desire to have data available when making decisions, said Weberg.

By linking information from separate databases together, it will help people to understand a particular area of the state, he said.

Demonstration projects for the atlas are Minnesota’s ilmenite deposits and wetlands. These two projects were chosen because of development needs, according to researchers.

Future plans call for requesting funding to develop an statewide natural resource atlas.

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