Titanium Breakthrough Could Be Bigger Than Taconite for Iron Range

Another breakthrough moment for the Minnesota mining industry occurred this week. But will it matter, given environmentalists’ reflexive opposition to mining, no matter how responsibly done? The Duluth News Tribune reports ilmenite, a widely available mineral in northern Minnesota, has a bright future.img_0628_0

Scientists say they’ve successfully turned an abundant Minnesota mineral called ilmenite into valuable titanium dioxide in a pilot-scale demonstration project on the Iron Range.

The announcement Thursday comes one year after the Natural Resources Research Institute of the University of Minnesota Duluth received $600,000 in grants for the pilot project that some scientists say could lead to a breakthrough in new mineral development to rival the iron ore mined here for more than a century.

The News Tribune first reported in early 2016 that ilmenite, an iron-titanium compound, had been confirmed in large deposits in the region. Scientists now say the Minnesota mineral can be successfully processed into titanium dioxide, which is used in dozens of consumer products such as paints, and which can be further refined into titanium steel, one of the strongest substances on Earth.

Titanium dioxide is in everything from paints, lotions and lip balms “to the white in your powdered sugar donuts,” said George Hudak, economic geologist who heads the NRRI’s mining efforts.

Duluth geologist and businessman Bill Ulland has been exploring the possibilities of processing ilmenite for decades. But it’s taken until now for the process to pan out to the point of being potentially commercially viable.

“I believe we are on the cusp of a new mining industry here in Northeastern Minnesota,” Ulland said.

Others compared the titanium breakthrough to the research in the mid-20th century by E.W. Davis at the University of Minnesota that led to the process of turning low-grade taconite iron ore into a usable concentrate for steel mills, a move that has kept the Iron Range producing iron a half-century after most of the state’s more pure iron ore had run out.

NRRI officials say they will now make their results available to potential mine developers in the hopes a mine and processing center may someday be developed.

Minnesota has North America’s biggest ilmenite reserves and the most accessible. NRRI calls the project a prototype natural resources project that exploits the state’s natural resources in an environmentally responsible way.

Promoters also noted ilmenite is found inside rock that has low sulfur content, reducing concerns that it would lead to acid mine runoff. But they acknowledge that there has been no effort yet to study the environmental impacts of either the mining or processing aspects of a full-scale ilmenite/titanium operation. Those studies likely would be conducted by a potential developer. And while both supply and demand have now been confirmed, promoters conceded Thursday that there is no major investor yet ready to build a titanium project in Minnesota.

Still, the “new” mineral could be the next big thing in Minnesota mining, a potential game-changer for the Iron Range, by adding a high-value mineral to help buffer the relatively low-value and cyclical iron ore mining economy of the region.

“We’re not there yet,” Ulland said of a commercial titanium operation. “But we’re as close as we’ve ever been.”

The industry holds the potential for a huge economic impact and high-paying jobs that could transform the Iron Range economy. But so do the other mining proposals on hold for years in northern Minnesota due to the across-the-board opposition by environmental extremists and their political allies on the left.