DULUTH, Minn. | Minerals and metallurgical engineer Don Fosnacht said having an "ungodly vast" array of natural resources is a good situation.
Being able to capture those resources through a viable business enterprise is even better.
Companies in northeast Minnesota and workers on the Iron Range have been able to capture a resource that Northwest Indiana's steel industry has depended on for more than a century. Fosnacht, who is with the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, said new technological developments and recovery of other resources could keep the area humming for more years to come.
"As far as running out of iron resources, in the near term, I don't think it's going to happen," said Fosnacht, a Chicago native and former Crown Point resident who worked for Inland Steel for more than 20 years. "You probably have 100 years of resources that could be used."
Billions of tons of iron ore reserves are projected to be sitting in northern Minnesota, and much of that is concentrated in the 140-mile-long Mesabi Iron Range. Cities and towns about an hour north of Duluth serve as the operation bases for companies including ArcelorMittal, United States Steel Corp., Cliffs Natural Resources Inc., and Steel Dynamics Inc. A number of manufacturers and other entities in Duluth and the surrounding area rely on a thriving mining industry.
Northeast Minnesota looks south for its economic fortune while Northwest Indiana looks north in awaiting the arrival of raw materials such as iron pellets at region steel mills.
The No. 7 blast furnace on the east side of the ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor complex in East Chicago is directly dependent on activities of the range. All of the iron ore pellets – 2.8 million metric tons annually – produced at the company's Minorca mine in Virginia, Minn., are sent by rail to Duluth, placed on a barge and then shipped to Northwest Indiana, said Minorca Vice President and Operations Manager Jonathan Holmes.
Holmes said before the product leaves the 500-acre active mining area, taconite rock has to be extracted from mine pits. The rock often starts out with about a 21 percent iron concentration, but then the material is concentrated and after a series of processes, it comes out as finished iron pellets that contain about 67 percent iron, he said.
Mining activities in Minnesota for U.S. Steel also serve the Gary Works integrated steelmaking complex, but a breakdown for how much of that iron goes to Gary wasn't available from a company spokeswoman.
Preparing a workforce
The iron mining industry helped small towns such as Virginia, Mount Iron, Hibbing and others grow and survive for decades through the boom-and-bust cycles.
About 3,000 employees have an average wage and benefit package of $65,000 a year, according to 2008 data from the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. The industry also provides millions of dollars for the right to mine taconite on the Iron Range.
While heavy manufacturing may have a negative view in other parts of the country, Holmes said the mining industry is viewed positively because it provides meaningful work. He said the average length of service at Minorca is about 13 years for the nearly 350 employees.
"Although a maturing workforce is an industry concern, at ArcelorMittal Minorca we continue to find qualified people to fill positions given natural attrition," Holmes said. "We have close partnerships with the local colleges and vocational technical schools with programs tailored to the mining industry for both operators and crafts people. We are able to attract new workers who will be the next generation of employees and they are very interested in staying in the region to work in mining."
Next big thing
In Fosnacht's position, he works with companies to adapt processes and make them more efficient, but also to research new technologies and production methods.
With about two-thirds of U.S. steel production being made using electric arc furnaces, Fosnacht said, new methods had to be developed to allow those furnaces to be charged with iron.
One key development on the Iron Range was helping develop an iron substitute for scrap to charge an electric arc furnace. Fosnacht said the institute is working with a manufacturer now to look beyond direct-reduced iron, but that process isn't ready for commercialization yet.
Researchers have known for a few decades that areas of northeast Minnesota contain materials such as copper, nickel, platinum and titanium oxide, but recovering those resources "could lead to another industry" boom.
"Potentially that could lead to another industry that takes all the primary metals and converts them to useful products," Fosnacht said.
Also Fosnacht said the institute is working on increasing the use of aggregate, a silicate-based rock that is a cast off from the mining process. It can be used on highways because it can provide better traction for vehicles, especially in the winter.
Taking advantage of North American shale gas deposits, Fosnacht said he sees a scenario where companies adapt their mines to produce a direct-reduced iron product.