A bright future for mining

Northeastern Minnesota’s iron ore industry is feeding the future.

Iron ore produced at the region’s six taconite plants is increasingly becoming the raw material used to feed modern steelmaking technologies.

It’s a step that industry analysts and steelworkers say is critical to the long-term health of Minnesota’s $3 billion per year taconite industry.

“I think it’s very exciting,” said John Arbogast, United Steelworkers District 11 staff representative. “We all know the future of steelmaking with companies like Nucor and U.S. Steel getting into EAF (electric arc furnace) steelmaking.” 

As steelmakers build new modern steelmaking mini mills, where electric arc furnaces produce steel and DR-grade pellets feed hot-briquetted iron plants, a higher-value iron is needed to supply those facilities. 

The two Iron Range taconite plant owners, Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc. and United States Steel Corp., are increasingly supplying iron ore for modern steelmaking.  

Production of DR-grade pellets at Northshore Mining Co. began several years ago.

Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc. in 2018 began upgrading its Northshore Mining Co. operation to produce up to 3.5 million tons of DR-grade pellets per year. The Cleveland-based iron and steel company invested about $100 million and 500,000 hours of labor in the upgrade DR-grade pellets from the plant feed Cleveland-Cliffs’ new $830 million hot-briquetted iron plant in Toledo, Ohio.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction, especially with Cliffs producing DR-grade pellets,” said Brett Spigarelli, Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) metallurgical engineer. “In the near term, being able to produce value-added products is a big step on the Iron Range.”

Cleveland-Cliffs announced in its third quarter earnings call that DR-grade pellet production at Northshore will be moved to its Minorca Mine in Virginia. 

U. S. Steel announced in its third quarter earnings call that ore from its Minnesota Ore Operations on the Iron Range will feed a pig-iron facility at its Gary Works in Gary, Ind. It’s not clear yet whether the pig iron will be made from ore produced at U.S. Steel’s Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron, Keetac in Keewatin or both. The Gary Works pig-iron machine is expected to be operating in the first quarter of 2023.

Higher-iron products such as DR-grade pellets and pig iron are a step beyond traditional iron ore pellets. Traditional acid or flux iron ore pellets contain about 63% iron. DR-grade pellets contain about 67% iron. Pig iron is about 92% iron. 

Pig iron produced at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works will be used to feed the company’s growing fleet of electric arc furnaces.

 U. S. Steel currently operates electric arc furnaces at its Big River Steel mini mill in Osceola, Ark., and at its Birmingham Works in Alabama. The Pittsburgh-based steelmaker is also looking for a site to build a second mini mill. That mini mill will add about 3 million tons of steelmaking capacity per year for U.S. Steel

 The Iron Range has a long history of producing iron ore pellets that feed the blast furnaces of steelmakers. However, about 70% of the steel currently produced in the United States is being made in modern electric arc furnaces. The remaining 30% is made in blast furnaces.

Although EAF’s are capturing a larger segment of steelmaking, demand for blast furnace feed won’t go away any time soon, said Kelsey Johnson, Iron Mining Association of Minnesota president. “The blast furnace market is still going strong,” Johnson said.

 But as the EAF market grows, Iron Range taconite plants are responding, Johnson said.

 “In the last 20 years, we’ve seen an evolution with the EAF, and it’s good to see the taconite producers move in that direction and that the mines are able to handle the growth in the EAF market.”   

 Production of traditional acid and flux-iron ore pellets on the Iron Range, coupled with DR-grade pellet production and other feed for EAF’s, is a positive sign for the future of Northeastern Minnesota’s taconite industry, Spigarelli said. “It’s how can we utilize every bit of ore that’s mined.”

 Iron ore research at NRRI is helping taconite producers refine iron ore for use in modern steelmaking.

 “Part of our focus in our Iron of the Future program is to identify alternatives and value-added products that we can make,” said Rodney Johnson, NRRI endowed taconite chair. “We are also looking at other products such as DRI (direct reduced iron) and what we can do to make more of that.”

 More Iron Range taconite plants could produce DR-grade pellets as research on different ores and processing technologies like flotation removes more silica (waste) from iron-ore concentrate, Johnson said.  

 “We’re in a pretty interesting time,” said Johnson. “There’s a lot of new drivers coming into play with CO2 and carbon reductions.” 

Both Cleveland-Cliffs and U.S. Steel are focusing on sustainable steelmaking. 

U.S. Steel in April announced a 2050 net-zero target. Under the plan, U.S. Steel will use its growing fleet of EAF’s, DRI, carbon-free energy sources, carbon capture, and sequestration to increase sustainability.

Cleveland-Cliffs is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2030 compared to 2017 levels.

Cleveland-Cliffs is also promoting energy efficiency and carbon capture. In early November, Cleveland-Cliffs announced a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy as part of a government Better Climate Challenge Initiative.

 America’s steelmaking as a whole has taken major steps toward environmental sustainability, say industry officials. American steel plants operate with lower energy consumption per ton of steel in the world, according to the American Iron & Steel Institute (AISI). Since 1990, the industry has reduced its CO2 emissions by 37%, according to the AISI.

Steel is 100% recyclable. Each year, more steel is recycled in America than aluminum, paper, glass and plastic combined, according to the Steel Recycling Institute.

The United States is leading the world in the development of EAF steelmaking, Spigarelli said.

With nearly 140 years of iron mining history, the ability to feed modern steelmaking is moving the Iron Range into a new era of iron production that will support modern steelmaking, Spigarelli said. 

“Being involved in the Iron Range is an exciting time,” Spigarelli said. “All the infrastructure needed to modify the pellet a bit to be able to feed these new technologies is on the Iron Range. I hope readers can see how the industry is evolving right now. There’s a bright future on the Iron Range for iron mining.”