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New director has vision for University of Minnesota Duluth's NRRI

Rolf Weberg, the new director of the Natural Resources Research Institute, sits beside the institute’s pilot scale wood thermal modification kiln on Thursday. Weberg formerly worked at DuPont. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Rolf Weberg knows what his job is and why it may not be easy.

The new director of the Natural Resources Research Institute understands that. At first blush, the NRRI might seem to have a Jekyll and Hyde personality.

On one level — called the Center for Water and the Environment — scientists work to unveil the secrets of Northeastern Minnesota’s iconic environmental elements, studying troubled forest birds, declining moose, threatened lynx, diminishing Great Lakes wetlands, climate change impacts on peat bogs and basic water quality.

On another level — the Center for Applied Research & Technology Development and the Center for Economic Development — researchers and economic experts are trying to promote and expanded hard-rock mining, find new uses for trees cut from Minnesota forests and develop opportunities to exploit other natural resources like peat and biomass to create jobs.

It’s now up to Weberg to keep the two levels not just on track, but in harmony and producing results.

The NRRI’s official mission is to “foster the economic development of Minnesota’s natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.” And Weberg insists those elements are not mutually exclusive.

“These are incredibly complex problems that Minnesota is facing as it looks to develop natural resources. But that’s what excites me about this job,” Weberg said on Thursday in his first interview with the News Tribune. “What is so exciting is that we have this great resource here (at NRRI) with an incredibly dedicated and knowledgeable staff, and that we can bring to bear with all the horsepower of the university system and the resources of our local industries. We need this collaboration to make it work.”

Just as important, however, Weberg said any effort to use natural resources needs to be mindful of abuses and the public’s interest and right to unspoiled water and woods. Fresh water, he said, may be the most valuable resource any region or people can have.

“You simply can’t do applied research and technology development divorced from environmental concerns. Any industry that does that today does so at its own peril,” Weberg said. “Environmental stewardship, sustainability ... and product stewardship is as important as the product itself. The public demands that  or we lose our public license to operate.”

Jerry Niemi, a longtime NRRI scientist who works on forest birds, amphibians and Great Lakes water issues, said the NRRI’s unique mission is important as Minnesota debates issues like copper mining and forest utilization.

“He’s got a challenging job, no doubt. But I like Rolf’s energy. I think he has a good background for that position,” Niemi said of Weberg. “We need this integration of economic development and resource development with environmental science. It’s never been more clear in Minnesota right now that you need both if we want to move forward.”

Weberg, 53, took over March 24 at the NRRI, a branch of the University of Minnesota Duluth with offices along Highway 53 in Hermantown, a minerals research lab in Coleraine and an Ely field station.

Weberg, a St. Paul native who grew up in Mankato, Minn., is a 25-year veteran of the DuPont chemical company who also happens to be a UMD graduate. He holds a Ph.D. in synthetic and mechanistic inorganic chemistry from the University of Colorado and spent two years as a postdoctoral research associate at Colorado State University. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry at UMD in 1982.

“I really like Duluth. This is a sort of homecoming for me,” Weberg said.

An avid trumpet player (he has three), bicycle racing enthusiast and craft beer fan, Weberg oversees about 170 permanent staff members with another 50 or so seasonal temporary student workers coming on for summer projects. He oversees a more than $15 million budget that comes from university, state and federal funds, not including a potpourri of research grants totaling nearly $7 million at this time.

Weberg is only the institute’s second director, taking over for Mike Lalich, who retired last year after heading the place essentially since its inception in the mid-1980s. The institute is a child of the Minnesota Legislature, which wanted to find new uses for Minnesota’s natural resources that could help create jobs and pull the region out of an economic tailspin. That was just after thousands of jobs were lost on the Iron Range, and taconite mining slowed to a crawl.

Indeed, NRRI minerals experts have helped lead research to help revitalize the taconite iron ore industry and the basic minerals exploration and documentation that has helped pave the way for a potential copper mining industry here.

Now, NRRI is working on water quality issues for proposed copper mines. Researchers are fine-tuning a system to heat-treat Minnesota wood to make it more weatherproof. Others are developing ways to turn unwanted or overabundant tree species into biomass. Others are helping craft waste composites into reusable, washable chopsticks.

Weberg most recently served as global research and development manager in DuPont’s Building Innovations sector in Buffalo, N.Y., where he led his division’s global, market-driven research programs, identifying opportunities for technology collaboration and development. He has introduced several patented technology platforms and has been responsible for major expansions of manufacturing processes.

It’s that experience at taking ideas from science and getting them to market at DuPont that gave him the nod for the NRRI position. While he was doing it for DuPont stockholders before, now he’s doing it for his home state.

“It’s a different set of stockholders now. The public owns this place, and they own what our people do here, and hopefully they will see the benefits,” Weberg said. “We work for them.”

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