Iron ore has been mined in the state for a century and copper may be just around the corner, but University of Minnesota researchers say a new mineral might be even more valuable.

It's called ilmenite, an iron-titanium compound, and there's apparently large deposits of it across the Iron Range, including a site northeast of Hoyt Lakes.

The Natural Resources Research Institute of the University of Minnesota Duluth will ask the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board on Monday for a $300,000 grant for a pilot-scale demonstration project to process ilmenite into high-value titanium feedstock.

The university has pledged to kick in $300,000 of its own to see if ilmenite can be processed effectively for commercial use.

The stuff is apparently widespread and "located relatively close to the surface and would be easily amenable to open-pit mining with minimal stripping of overburden," according to the request for funding.

The "new" mineral could be a potential game-changer for the Range by adding a high-value mineral to help buffer the relatively low-value and cyclical iron ore mining industry.

The iron-titanium compound could be used in manufacturing of jet engines, aircraft, spacecraft and missiles when used as feedstock to make metal. In a powdered form it's used in expensive paints, paper, plastics, rubber and other products.

Compared to iron ore, which is selling for about $45 per ton now, titanium mineral concentrate goes for $110 while other forms used to make metals can fetch thousands of dollars per ton.

Until now "the difficulty in processing the region's ilmenite deposits has been removal of impurities such as magnesium oxide, which stood in the way of further refining the ore for higher value applications," the IRRRB request notes.

Now the "NRRI, in partnership with a Canadian company, Process Research Ortech, has identified a proprietary technology that allows them to overcome these limitations and produce ultra-pure titanium dioxide products that can be directly used as high-value pigments or ... feedstock for titanium metal production," the IRRRB request notes.

In a letter to IRRRB officials, Rolf Weberg, NRRI director, said his lab has successfully processed more than 50 tons of material from the so-called Longnose deposit on the Iron Range and that the results were "very promising."

If the pilot-scale processing project is successful, Weberg predicts mining companies would likely be interested in investing in a some sort of full-scale processing plant.

While the prospects of large-scale mining of ilmenite might be years away, it was similar research by the university more than 60 years ago ago that led to the development of taconite iron ore by concentrating what had been low-grade ore into a high-grade, high-value pellet.

Bovey manufacturing plant, Giants Ridge on IRRRB list

The IRRRB will meet in Eveleth on Monday to hand out money from several funds for several projects - including a Bovey manufacturing business, Giants Ridge ski area and some Iron Range schools that are merging efforts.

Giants Ridge is asking for money from a special Giants Ridge Recreation Area tax that went into effect in 2010 but which hasn't yet been tapped. The ski area, which currently has a new chalet under construction, wants $500,000 from the special tax fund to add new trails, a climbing wall and kids' playground area.

The IRRRB board also is ready to hand out $2.4 million in taconite tax revenue to 15 different municipalities across the Range for public improvements totaling $37.4 million.

And the board is being asked to appropriate the first school collaboration funding out of a new fund created in 2014 by the Minnesota Legislature. That money was siphoned away from other taconite tax funds, including money aimed at counties and taconite plant construction rebates, and is now aimed at encouraging merger efforts for Range districts.

The Grand Rapids, Greenway and Nashwauk-Keewatin districts and Itasca Community College are planning a joint STEM concentration, focusing on science, technology, math and engineering.

The Aitkin, Cook County and Crosby-Ironton districts also are proposing technology-focused programming, while the Mesabi East and St. Louis County districts are asking for money to reduce bond costs for previous merger efforts.

Also Monday, Grand Rapids-based Magnetation Inc. is asking for a $736,349 rebate on the taconite taxes it pays to help pay for a capital project to improve its process for producing iron ore concentrate at its Plant 4. The money, which is part of a rebate offered to all ore producers, covers about half the $1.5 million project. Magnetation currently is working through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Big expansion for KMDA

Bovey-based fishing tackle manufacturer KMDA is asking for a $455,000 IRRRB-backed bank participation loan Monday, part of a $1.56 million expansion. The company is expanding its hunting and fishing product manufacturing operation with the purchase of Baker Tools, currently located in Pennsylvania.

Baker Tools' manufacturing will be moved to Bovey into a new facility to house both existing KMDA operations and Baker Tools.

The expansion will add 70 new customers (including Wal-Mart) to KMDA's existing 200. It also opens up more markets on the east and west coasts. The expansion is expected to add four new jobs.

KMDA Inc. was formed in 2002 in Bovey by brothers Derek and Mike Vekich. The company has repaid a previous $43,000 loan from the IRRRB in 2010.