UMD seeks funding for titanium mining research

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University of Minnesota Duluth researchers on Monday will ask for funding for a project that could eventually lead to titanium mining on the Iron Range.

UMD's Natural Resources Research Institute is seeking $300,000 from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to demonstrate the viability of a new technology for processing a mineral called ilmenite. That's an iron-titanium compound that's found in several deposits in northeast Minnesota, including a site known as the Longnose Deposit a few miles northeast of Hoyt Lakes, very near the proposed PolyMet copper nickel mine.

"We've identified a processing technology with a partner in Canada that allows the efficient separation of the titanium dioxide in pure form," said UMD's Rolf Weberg.

The ore in Minnesota contains impurities like magnesium oxide, Weberg explained. Difficulty in removing those impurities has prevented mining in the past.

The technology developed in tandem with a Canadian company, Process Research Ortech, has produced at laboratory scale a pure titanium dioxide product that can be used directly as a high value pigment in paints or other products, or as feedstock for titanium metal production.

Titanium is used mostly in jet engines, airframes and space and missile applications, according to the IRRRB.   "Successful development of this resource could diversify Minnesota's mining industry to deliver high value products and position Minnesota as a strategic supplier to new markets," wrote IRRRB Commissioner Mark Phillips in a memo to the IRRRB Board in advance of its meeting Monday.

Most of the ilmenite deposits on the Iron Range are located within ten to 20 feet of the surface, UMD's Weberg said, and could be easily open-pit mined.

If a pilot scale demonstration is successful, the next step would be to conduct a full feasibility study, Weberg said. That would cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, which would include a full economic analysis of a potential mining operation, as well as modeling of environmental impacts.

"This is very preliminary," Weberg said. "But we're excited about it. As we expand the portfolio" of opportunities in the state, he added, "we can make logical choices about what we do and don't want to take advantage of with our mineral resources."  

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