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The promise of ilmenite

Latest breakthrough demonstrates value of government support for science

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The announcement that the Natural Resources Research Institute has successfully processed high purity titanium oxide from ilmenite ore found on the Iron Range provides an encouraging sign about the potential for the development of this high-grade mineral resource.

Geologists have known of the presence of ilmenite in the region for years, but the mineral is intermixed with too much magnesium to have made it commercially viable in the past. However, NRRI, in conjunction with a Canadian company, was able to finally solve this problem with a new hydrometallurgical method that removes the vast majority of the magnesium. With that hurdle surmounted, there is real hope that development of a new mining industry could soon be on the horizon.

There’s reason to think that this is an industry that could win backing from many of those who are currently nervous about the prospect of copper-nickel mining in the region. For one thing, the deposits of ilmenite are far higher grade than the area’s copper-nickel deposits, and they are very compact. That means mine site disturbance of a couple hundred acres, rather than thousands of acres as is the case with copper-nickel. And that means an overall environmental impact that is much less, both in initial impact from the mining itself as well as in the post-closure phase.

In addition, the geological formations surrounding these ilmenite deposits are low in sulfide, according to NRRI director Rolf Weberg, and that means much less risk of acid mine drainage.

Ilmenite has the potential to moderate the natural boom and bust cycles that have generally plagued the mining industry for years. Products like iron ore and copper are major commodities, found all throughout the world, with demand subject to the ups and downs of the global economy. But deposits with significant levels of titanium oxide are far less common, and it’s a mineral used in everyday products, like paints, that are less subject to business cycles. What’s more, NRRI is focused on taking titanium production to the next level, by bringing related value-added processing and new product development to the region as well. That maximizes, and stabilizes, the job-creating potential from the mining of ilmenite.

That’s in stark contrast to current plans for copper-nickel mining in the region, which plan to ship nothing more than concentrate from proposed Minnesota mines to smelting operations, probably outside the U.S. No value-added there.

It’s worth noting that this potential breakthrough came, in part, because of government support for science. NRRI, throughout its history, has provided great examples of how both basic and applied scientific research can yield major economic benefits with relatively modest investment. NRRI’s example serves as a cautionary tale in an era when our leadership in Washington appears intent on gutting funding for science all across the board.

There will be risks and tradeoffs to ilmenite, as is always the case with mining. And we won’t know the full story until the companies that control these ilmenite resources begin to advance proposed mine plans and the environmental reviews are completed. But as of today, it appears there is real promise in ilmenite.

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