Directory 23: Developing a portfolio key to region’s future | BusinessNorth Exclusives

Rolf Weberg, executive director of the Natural Resources Research Institute, describes his organization at the University of Minnesota Duluth: “NRRI’s role in Minnesota, and nationally, is to deliver data, tools and technologies to support long-term decisions concerning the use, protection and remediation of our natural resources. We do this by listening to, and partnering with, all stakeholders to define and execute interdisciplinary applied research. Our goal is to help drive the economy of the future that benefits all people, the economy and the planet.”

BN: What are the Top 5 challenges or opportunities you see for mining, forestry and other resources? Please explain why they might be challenging or beneficial.

RW: 1) Developing a portfolio of natural resource-based products. As markets and social expectations evolve, Minnesota business and industry must strategically extend beyond our current commodity portfolio to lead responsible growth in new material, energy and water opportunities for a robust future economy. 

2) Decarbonization. Climate change is causing devastating environmental, economic and social impacts around the globe. We must take action to pursue integrated science solutions that can deliver real reductions in our carbon footprint. These solutions will include reduced energy consumption, fossil energy replaced with renewable sources, renewable biomass converted into value-add materials and fuels, new approaches to metallurgy, and perhaps other forms of carbon capture.

3) Protecting water resources. Access to fresh water can no longer be taken for granted as a “free” commodity but recognized as a precious world resource. Everything – from wildlife to people to industrial processes – requires access to fresh water. We must work to reduce consumption, while protecting and remediating, our water resources, including stormwater runoff, as we pursue economic opportunities. 

4) Reduce, repurpose or recycle waste streams. Natural resource-based industries can have significant waste streams that impact other land and water resources. Many of these materials can find other uses or applications that bring value. Current industrial processes can refocus on processing of other waste streams to recycle valuable materials back into the economy. 

5) Ensure shared economic benefits and social license. As the economy of the future evolves, we must ensure that it benefits all citizens, communities and the environment. This includes encouraging an entrepreneurial culture to bring new ideas forward. Without carefully considering the product life cycle cost-risk-benefit, we will not be able to maintain the social license to compete. 

BN: For next year and the coming years, what minerals within the greater region do you think will become high potential powerhouses and why? 

RW: Iron is undergoing an exciting renaissance – and Minnesota can and should be a significant player. We will continue to produce blast furnace pellets, but the steel industry is moving towards higher value Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) pellets to fuel electric arc furnace steel production, which will expand opportunities for Minnesota iron. Reprocessing of iron mining waste piles and tails to harvest iron units and other materials is beginning to move forward. “Green steel” opens other opportunities in Minnesota – producing steel directly from ore via renewable energy, hydrogen and renewable biocarbon. New technologies are finding applications for iron including the emerging iron-air battery for high-capacity renewable energy storage, novel materials for efficient solar energy generation and new water treatment processes.  NRRI is fully engaged in these efforts via partnerships with industry, Minnesota and the federal agencies.

Minnesota is considering production of potential nickel, copper and related mineral products to fuel global electrification and decarbonization initiatives. Mining of these materials is significantly different from Minnesota’s experience with iron mining. While timing of this opportunity is uncertain, it provides the opportunity to consider/demonstrate technologies that allow sourcing of these materials with reduced energy and water consumption, protected water and land resources and delivery of a high value product portfolio. NRRI continues to work with partners to identify and develop new technology approaches. 

BN: What should we know about the coming year for NRRI’s work, or for resource use in general in Minnesota?

RW: NRRI’s research in minerals and metallurgy is fully integrated with our efforts in ecosystem studies and resilience planning, forest products and the emerging bioeconomy. We refer to this as “Integrated Natural Resource Stewardship” in which all natural resource opportunities are viewed from all perspectives to make informed, economically and socially sound, long-term decisions.

Our ecosystem teams are working hard to understand the changing world that we live in – effects of climate change and human activities on forest and water habitats, impacts of invasive species and toxic algal blooms, the fate of pollution contaminants in the environment and species migration and extinction. All this information allows NRRI to plan, develop and demonstrate strategies and technologies to protect and/or remediate water and land resources. Examples include piloting sulfate removal processes and demonstrating techniques to remove phosphate and PFAS pollution from water systems.

Our forest product and bioeconomy teams are focused on developing new applications for Minnesota forest species ranging from new building products to bio-based chemicals, materials and fuels. To help supply feedstock for these opportunities, NRRI is commercializing fast-growing hybrid poplar trees that will rapidly sequester carbon as they grow to maturity within 8 years.

It is difficult to summarize the integrated research efforts NRRI is pursuing in a few paragraphs. However, this approach is unveiling new opportunities for Minnesota to drive the economy of the future. Check out our website at, and let us know what you think. NRRI will stay busy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *