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Titanium pilot project on Range dubbed success

A sample pure iron oxide (left) and titanium dioxide refined from raw ilmenite from the Iron Range. The two substances are pigments widely used in many industries. NRRI developed a hydrometallurgical process that will allow titanium dioxide to be refined from local sources. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
A sample of raw ilmenite from the Iron Range. NRRI developed a hydrometallurgical process that will allow titanium dioxide to be refined from local sources. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
A sample pure iron oxide (left) and titanium dioxide refined from raw ilmenite from the Iron Range. The two substances are pigments widely used in many industries. NRRI developed a hydrometallurgical process that will allow titanium dioxide to be refined from local sources. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

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.

It’s the first time pure titanium dioxide has been made from Minnesota ilmenite on a “pilot scale that’s relevant to industry,’’ said Rolf Weberg, NRRI executive director, who noted the breakthrough was a concrete example of the institute's charter to conduct applied research that can spur jobs using Minnesota natural resources without harming the environment.

The ilmenite was mined from the so-called Longnose deposit just northeast of Hoyt Lakes that’s owned by Bill Ulland, Duluth geologist and entrepreneur. Some 10 tons of ilmenite was processed in two steps in Minnesota and Ontario — once mechanically and then using hydrometallurgical process where acids leach the minerals out of the rock — into 99.8 percent pure titanium dioxide.

Until now the major limiting problem was getting rid of impurities, such as magnesium oxide.  Now, the NRRI and its partner, Ontario-based research lab Process Research Ortech, say their  proprietary technology easily removes those impurities.

Moreover, some of the byproducts include silica, which can be used in road patch material, and an ultra-pure iron that could be used to make iron nuggets, adding value and reducing waste at any future mining operation.

Breakthrough for Range?

Ulland has been working on the Longnose ilmenite deposit since the 1970s but said the level of purity reached by the NRRI/PRO effort means it’s economically viable on a large, commercial mine scale in the not so distant future.

“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.

NRRI geological maps show known ilmenite/titanium deposits running from the eastern Range south to near Duluth. Geologists said Thursday that the Longnose deposit alone is the largest and richest ilmenite deposit in North America, with more than 100 million tons confirmed under the 160-acre site. They also say there isn’t much “overburden” rock and dirt on top of it, making it easier and cheaper to mine in an open-pit operation.

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.”

Big bucks, many uses

In a powdered form, titanium dioxide is used in paints, paper, plastics, rubber and other products. The iron-titanium compound also can be used as feedstock to make super-strong steel used in manufacturing of jet engines, aircraft, ships, spacecraft and missiles — as well as expensive bicycles and and golf clubs.

Titanium dioxide is even used as white pigment in many packaged food products, including confections, soups, fillings, sauces, pet food and powdered soft drinks, although the stuff has been recently criticized in Europe as a potentially unsafe food additive.

Compared to processed taconite iron ore, which is selling for about $60 per ton now, titanium dioxide is selling for about $3,200 per ton, NRRI officials said Thursday.

Ilmenite is named for the place it was first discovered, at Ilmen Lake in the southern portion of Russia’s Ural Mountains. The rock version of ilmenite is mined in South Africa, but its titanium elements can also be processed from sand, with sand mining operations in Georgia, Florida and Australia.

The University of Minnesota and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board each contributed $300,000 grants to the ilmenite/titanium project.

“This project is the poster child for why NRRI was formed,” said Mark Phillips, IRRRB commissioner.

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