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May 25, 2017

Titanium Pilot Project on Range Dubbed Success

by John Myers
Duluth News Tribune

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, including close to the surface in an ore body near Hoyt Lakes.

Scientists now say the Minnesota mineral can be successfully processed into valuable 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.

The large-scale pilot tests took place at the NRRI's Coleraine Minerals Lab. Some 10 tons of ilmenite was processed in two steps — once mechanically and then using hydrometallurgical process — 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 company Process Research Ortech, say their proprietary technology easily removes those impurities.

"This is especially exciting because we have an opportunity to process the ilmenite to an end product, titanium dioxide, here in Minnesota," said Rolf Weberg, NRRI executive director, in a statement. "NRRI's role is to define the state's portfolio of mineral opportunities. That is how we retain wealth, add value to our resources and take care of our environment."

NRRI geological maps show known ilmenite/titanium deposits running from the eastern Range south to near Duluth.

The ilmenite came from a deposit northeast of Hoyt Lakes called "Longnose," owned by Duluthian Bill Ulland's American Shield Titanium Group LLC. Geologists said Thursday that it's the largest and richest ilmenite deposit in the United States. They also say there isn't much "overburden" rock and dirt on top of it, making it easier and cheaper to mine.

"This process, demonstrated by NRRI and PRO, appears to be very cost effective with commercial potential. There's a very strong market now for titanium dioxide," Ulland said in a statement.

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.

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.

In a powdered form, titanium dioxide is used in expensive 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 (and golf clubs, too).

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

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© 2017 Forum Communications Co. -  Access more business news from the Duluth News Tribune
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© 2017 Forum Communications Co. -  Access more business news from the Duluth News Tribune