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.