Researchers from the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), and arm of the University of Minnesota Duluth, working in partnership with Canadian company called Process Research Outreach have demonstrated a new technique to separate high-purity titanium oxide from ilmenite and might prove to the be the key to opening a new mining boom for Minnesota.
The Longnose deposit just southeast of the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel project is the largest known deposit of ilmenite deposit in North America and one of many deposits in a the region. However, the deposits have not been mined in the past because conventional processing techniques were unable to remove magnesium impurities that are also present in the ore.
But now, researchers have developed a way to process a pure form of titanium dioxide from the ore, which is used in a range of products, from paints to powdered donuts.
“Bottom line, high-purity titanium dioxide has not been possible from Minnesota ilmenite. Today it is,” said Rolf Weberg, Executive Director of NRRI told Minnesota Public Radio News. “This work opens new horizons for Minnesota.”
Like all potential mining projects in the United States, this one will have to clear a number of regulatory hurdles including an eventual environmental review, but the pay off could be significant. Titanium dioxide is valued around $3,200 per ton, compared to a value of around $70 for the taconite pellets produced on the Iron Range.
And the deposits are small in comparison to Minnesota’s other mining projects. The footprint of the Longnose deposit is only 160 acres, although it goes down about 1,400 ft.
Bill Ulland, a Duluth geologist and President of American Shield Titanium Group, which owns the mineral rights to the Longnose deposit said the deposit is within 10 feet of the surface, so it wouldn't require stripping off nearly as much earth as it takes to access iron ore. And, he said, it's located in ore with low sulfur content, which means it would not create the same potential for acid mine drainage as found in nearby copper-nickel deposits.
“Permitting is rigorous in Minnesota,” said Ulland. “But I think it’s eminently permittable.
“I think this is an important day for northern Minnesota. We’re on the cusp of a new mining industry here,” said Ulland.
The research was funded by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and the University of Minnesota Duluth, each of which contributed $300,000 to the project.