‘Iron of the Future’ program looks to new iron making technologies

Shaun Gram, a laboratory technician at the Natural Resources Research Institute laboratory in Coleraine, Minn., works on a sample of iron ore pellets.


Natural Resources Research Institute working with mining industry to improve efficiency and develop new products 

In the iron ore and steel industry, it’s adapt or die.

As iron and steelmakers move toward more efficient, environmentally-friendly forms of mining processing and steelmaking, researchers at the University of Minnesota Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) plan to be on the cutting edge of adaptation.

A new Iron of the Future program at NRRI is paving the way.

“We’re at a very interesting time for mining,” said Rodney Johnson, NRRI endowed taconite chair.

“There’s things like competition, energy costs, changing regulations on emissions, and more pressure to become CO2 neutral.”

The program includes research to help Northeastern Minnesota’s iron ore producers remain competitive in the ongoing production of iron ore pellets.

Northeastern Minnesota’s six taconite plants can produce about 40 million tons of iron ore pellets per year. The pellets are fed into blast furnaces to make steel. As demand in the automobile, construction and energy sectors has increased in recent months, so has demand for domestic steel.

Iron of the Future also looks to where the industry is headed in future decades. 

Industry experts say the nation’s iron and steel industries are likely to change dramatically within the next 20 years as sustainability is now a major goal.

“It’s no secret that the industry is looking at reduced energy and reduced carbonization,” said Rolf Weberg, NRRI executive director. “This is not just our vision. The whole industry and the whole world are headed this way. For us at NRRI, it’s how we over the next 10 to 15 years continue to assist the industry to make these changes. It’s a global effort, so we’re stepping up in this effort.”

As the nation’s mini steelmaking segment continues to grow, the need for higher iron content, value-added iron products to feed the electric arc furnaces of mini mill steelmakers, is also increasing. Value-added iron products include DR-grade pellets, direct-reduced iron pellets and pig iron. 

“We’ve always had the historic boom and bust cycle of mining,” said Johnson. “That’s kind of what’s driving this program. We’d like to do research that would make better use of the resources we have.”

The Iron of the Future program researches how to produce higher-value iron products from both existing and legacy iron ore resources across the Iron Range. That includes current mining operations and also the many lean ore stockpiles that dot the Iron Range from previous generations of mining.

Miners of years ago knew exactly what they were doing, said Johnson. While some of the old stockpiles are largely waste material, others contain iron. “Somebody had some foresight. There 

are waste piles and there are lean ore piles.”

From the lean ore piles and from current identified iron ore reserves, NRRI is seeking to develop products to feed the steel mills of the future. 

“What we want to look at is developing different products for blast furnaces and also high-tech products,” said Johnson. “Everybody sees the trend toward the electric arc furnace and we want to see how we can provide that feed. We’re also looking at modifying traditional pellets and making them more energy efficient.”

A study characterizing the entire ore formation across the Iron Range, research on new processing technologies, and the testing of more environmentally-friendly processing chemistry, is underway at NRRI.

Iron of the Future is also researching how iron can be used in the development of batteries, water treatment and hydrogen generation, said Johnson.

“Iron and steel are really important in Minnesota,” said Johnson. “But the high-tech, high-purity iron is really exciting. The more diverse our portfolio, the more robust this industry will be.”

Keeping northeastern Minnesota’s existing taconite industry strong remains a primary goal of NRRI, said Weberg, while at the same time, helping the iron and steel industry move toward more “green” energy production.

“The recent changes in society’s attitude about energy and CO2 comes into all aspects of the program,” said Weberg about Iron of the Future. This program will engage our people at Coleraine (an NRRI iron ore laboratory) and our water and biomass people in Duluth as well.”

Steelmakers who own Iron Range taconite mines are already stepping up sustainability efforts.

United States Steel Corp. in April announced a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. To reach that goal, U.S. Steel said it will leverage its electric arc furnace mini mills to make steel and utilize other technologies such as direct-reduced iron, carbon-free sources, carbon capture, sequestration and utilization.

U.S. Steel owns and operates two iron ore plants in Northeastern Minnesota, Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron and Keetac in Keewatin. U.S Steel is also minority-owner of Hibbing Taconite Co. near Hibbing and Chisholm.

Cleveland-Cliffs in January announced plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2030. Cleveland-Cliffs owns and operates four iron ore plants in northeastern Minnesota, Hibbing Taconite Co., Minorca Mine in Virginia, Northshore Mining Co. in Babbitt and Silver Bay, and United Taconite in Eveleth and Forbes.

To achieve that goal, the company says it will develop domestically-sourced high quality iron ore feed stock and use natural gas to produce hot-briquetted iron; implement energy efficiency and green energy projects; invest in carbon capture technology; enhance greenhouse gas emissions transparency and sustainability focus; and support public policies that facilitate carbon reduction within the domestic steel industry. 

Recently, Cleveland-Cliffs received roughly $300,000 in technical assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy to help test clean, efficient decarbonizing technologies. 

Cleveland-Cliffs’ Northshore Mining Co. facility is ahead of the curve in the production of higher-value iron production in Northeastern Minnesota. Its Silver Bay processing plant is producing DR-grade pellets that feed the company’s new direct-reduced iron facility in Toledo, Ohio.

Johnson sees other iron ore producers moving ahead with value-added production.

“We will see some more DR-grade pellets made on the Iron Range,” said Johnson. “The companies are working toward that area right now. We will put our research into making those pellets which respond more efficiently in the iron production process.” 

Iron of the Future is funded internally and with appropriations from the Minnesota Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, U.S. Department of Energy, and Minnesota Legislature, said Weberg.