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From the Current Skillings Mining Review
Excerpts From The Interview With Mr. Donald Fosnacht, Director of the Center for Applied Research and Technology Development (Natural Resources Research Institute)

SMR: Your strategic plan states that the demand for the Center for Applied Research and Technology Development is growing. Can you provide examples of the kind of projects that clients are interested in?

DF: For the Minerals Division which includes our Coleraine Minerals Research Laboratory (CMRL) and our Duluth Minerals Group (DMG), we are very active in various areas:  First, is the support of non-ferrous developments based on our exploration activities that have accumulated significant mineralization expertise that started back in the mid-1980s.  Our staff is often called on by all the key non-ferrous players to answer technical questions related to overall mineralogy of the rock on the Duluth Complex and other areas of the Northern part of the state.  Second, clients from the southern part of the state use our expertise to pin-point the location of potential industrial minerals opportunities.  Minnesota has a rich base of various minerals that are needed on an industrial basis and even some of the legacy materials stored in tailings basins and above ground piles have drawn new interest.  Our people help characterize the mineral potential in the ground and in these legacy areas.  We also have former employees who are in some of the major developments providing leadership on the geological potential that exists in Northern Minnesota.


Thirdly, with the increased demand for all minerals largely driven by BRIC countries (China, India, Russia and Brazil), significant pressure has been put on all mineral resources around the globe.  This has increased the need for iron ore, rare earths, non-ferrous and precious metals and the need for efficient recovery of these metal values with cost effective and environmentally sound processing techniques.  This surge in demand has led to significant applied research in new/improved technologies or process applications that previously were not economically feasible.  We have had a three pronged strategy in this area:  improvement of current mineral processing flow sheets; development of new markets for mining by-products, and the development of value-added processing that get the use of the material well beyond the recovered ore stage.

Some examples:

·         Improvement in ore grinding efficiency

·         Improvement in magnetic iron recovery

·         Development of new methods to recover non-magnetic iron and to separate iron and titanium values from titaniferous oxidized mafic intrusion ore deposits

·         Modeling of high temperature systems to allow for energy optimization using computational fluid dynamics and thermodynamics and mass balance techniques

·         Simulation of proposed improvements using specialized pilot processing equipment such as pellet induration or sintering equipment


Fourth, the change in smelting technology in the American steel industry has led us to work on alternative ways to produce iron metallic for use in Electric Arc Furnaces which today account for over 62% of US steel production.  CRML has developed significant expertise on alternative iron production from carbonaceous nugget production to gas based direct reduction processing.  For metallic iron production, iron nugget production was simulated from the laboratory through pilot scale and then to the demonstration level in collaboration with a major EAF based US steel producer.  The lab also has worked with various mining companies to develop low silica iron ore processing that will allow production of gas-based direct reduction iron (DRI) metallics for use in EAFs.  It is also developing simulation technologies that allow the laboratory to predict how these DRI processes will work with the new ore materials that may be used in the future.


Lastly, CRML is working with potential new mining operations both locally and on an international basis to prove out proposed processing flow sheets at the pilot scale.  We have the capabilities to simulate various processing regimes in closed or open circuit.


SMR: Tell us about the technologies which aid mines in achieving environmental sustainability goals in their base operations. What are the economic advantages achieved from the new technologies you described? 

DF: Our organization has a unique mission that combines economic development activities and environmental stewardship to promote private sector employment.  We believe this will lead to the existence of vital communities associated with the mining activities.  As such, when we propose changes or improvements in mining recovery techniques or in mineral processing, we look at ways to minimize the environmental consequences of the mineral recovery system.  Over the last 13 years, we have had an extensive program to develop new outlets for by-products of iron ore mining.  This has led to over a million tons of materials from the iron range being used as construction and highway aggregate.  This allows a reduction in solid waste accumulation and more revenue from mining operations. Over the last five years, we have led an environmental characterization program of the community air quality as part of the University Taconite Workers Lung Health Partnership investigation.  We also characterized the air in taconite plants to determine what mineral components were in the dust entrained in the air.  The information from these efforts will be used by the local authorities and by the unions and plant management to ensure environmental safety.  We also have work focused on developing solutions to mercury reduction from flue gases and removal of sulfate from mining waters.  We have worked with a local peat producer (American Peat Technologies) to develop peat based sorbents that can remove heavy metals and potentially anions such as sulfate from water.  In addition, we are working cooperatively with a local company to develop bioremediation techniques coupled with chemical precipitation to remove sulfate from high loading levels (>1000 ppm) to lower levels (under 200 ppm).  We believe that a combination of technologies can then cost-effectively control sulfate levels in order to meet state standards for sulfate. 


SMR: Your project to use inorganically bound taconite highway road patching and construction material is underway.  If successful, what will be the impact on the taconite market?

DF: The taconite market is huge.  We envision that the highway patching market can eventually reach the 10,000s of tons, but this is not significant to relative overall mining activities.  We do use both magnetite and tailings materials in the mix formulation, but additional concentrate likely can be produced from some of the mining operations that exist today or that will be coming on line in the future.


SMR: To what extent does the Center work with feasibility stage consultants and contractors? How does this interaction compare with the Center's direct interaction with mines?

DF: We work with consultants routinely and contractors are used extensively on larger projects.  In fact, feasibility stage work conducted for consultants, contractors, as well as mine operators plays a significant role in the list of projects.  The CMRL is well positioned with capabilities to conduct complete bench to pilot scale projects in mining, mineral processing and pyrometallurgy with an engineering staff comprised of several disciplines that represent industry as well as academia.  These capabilities are unique and only found in a small number of laboratories around the world.  CMRL has evolved from an industrial research laboratory, and interaction with contractors and consultants are often the direct result of their reputation and interaction with operating mines.



SMR: You mentioned clean energy resources in Minnesota could spell good news for the state and energy entrepreneurs. Can you outline some of the benefits?

DF: Clean energy resources can obviously benefit the environment and reduce the following areas:

  • Particulate emissions including PM10’s and PM 2.5’s
  • Air emissions including SOx, NOx, mercury, and CO2.
  • Water emissions including sulfates, nitrates, and mercury and other heavy metals


Great financial gains for our depressed forestry industry in NE Minnesota potentially possible from conversion of biomass to biocoal can be achieved.  This will potentially allow major utilities and other users of coal to meet future green-house gas targets and renewable mandates without significant new capital investment at their existing facilities in terms of new boiler or combustion systems.  We also think that conversion of various residues from agriculture production or pest plant removal can also be used to compliment the use of woody materials. In addition, entrepreneurs and other businesses can install new technologies and build new plants which produce products like biocoal.


SMR: As water resources become increasingly scarce world-wide, some investors are calling water “the new oil” as a valuable commodity. What are your views on the center’s research?

DF: Obviously, clean water and efficient water use are things very important to society.  NRRI has a whole center (Center for Water and the Environment) dedicated to characterizing and preserving water quality.  We work closely with this Center and other departments in the University that focus on water issues to first understand the issues and then hopefully develop practical solutions that can be used to maintain water quality.  Some of these efforts have already been described.  We believe that proactive solution development is best and that this should be done using sound science.  It should be noted that most industrial plants in the area including taconite mining conserve water usage by reusing plant waters.


SMR: NRRI is doing research on bio-coal by roasting biomass to make an efficient fuel source in Mauritania, Africa. What do you think about doing research outside the US and what are the chances of expansion?

DF: Our work on biocoal production from various plant materials has universal applicability. In the case of Mauritania, we had been approached by an individual who had spent significant time in West Africa and knew of our efforts.  The conditions in Mauritania involve a desperate need for new energy production and a problem in controlling a cattail like plant that is taking over key waterways. Our testing of similar material in Minnesota clearly showed that a high density energy product could be produced that could be used by local communities in cooking and heating applications.  We believe that this Minnesota developed technology could be used extensively throughout the Sahel area of Africa.  If adopted, this would allow US based manufacture of commercial units that could be employed both here and abroad to allow environmental and energy issues to be simultaneously addressed in a positive manner. My recent visit to Mauritania really confirmed the need for that country and hopefully our work will also build good will between Americans and Africans that is vital for a stable future.

SMR: Do you see pumped-hydro storage process producing enough wind energy to be seriously considered as an alternate energy source in Minnesota?

DF: We have studied pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) and are now studying compressed air energy storage (CAES) using abandoned mine sites and workings and for consideration of using underground workings of future mining operations for both technologies.  This work has been done with collaboration with various parts of the University including researchers from UMD Civil engineering, and UMTC’s Humphrey Institute and St. Anthony Falls Laboratory.  The work was and is being done in cooperation with two of the state’s major utilities.  Both PHES and CAES are enabling technologies to allow more efficient use of intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar energy.  The concept involves storage of excess energy as it is being produced and generation of this energy when it is needed.  This potentially enhances the overall value of the intermittent generation sources and facilitates electrical grid stability.


SMR: Can you please update us about the initiative to store energy in underground mines and caverns and what it will mean for the mining industry?

DF: As noted in the previous answer, we are currently studying the potential for use of underground caverns as an energy storage area.  One could envision as the underground working are created during a mining operation, the reuse of the caverns could lead to a continuing use of the location for a vital service for the community leading to continued employment and the more effective management of intermittent energy sources.  Potentially, power companies could partner with mining operations to extract the ore values while these storage caverns are constructed.  In some situations the combination of use may make otherwise non-economic mineral extraction cost effective.


SMR: You enjoy research, what’s the future of R&D in the industry?

DF: Our Research Center (both the Minerals and Forest Products divisions) focuses on developing practical solutions that hopefully will lead to things that can be practically implemented in a way that protects the environment and allow good paying private sector jobs to be created.  This focus really is in demand and the Center and its position in UMD and the University are well positioned to grow in the years ahead.  The US must regain its position as an innovation leader and I think we can help catalyze industry developments that will help keep us competitive relative to world competition.


SMR: How can companies new to the area or considering Minnesota contact the Center?

DF: They can contact me directly or contact some of our key management personnel.  The contact information is shown below:

  • Don Fosnacht, Director—Center for Applied Research and Technology Development (CARTD) (Phone:218-720-4282)  Email: dfosnach@nrri.umn.edu
  • George Hudak, Associate Director, CARTD 

(Phone: 218-720-4393)  Email: ghudak@nrri.umn.edu

  • Richard Kiesel, Director, Coleraine Minerals Research Laboratory (CMRL)

(Phone:  218-245-4207) Email: rkiesel@nrri.umn.edu


  • David Hendrickson, Director, Strategic Developments CMRL
  • (Phone: 218-245-4204)  Email:  dhendric@nrri.umn.edu
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