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From ore to more

August 15, 2011


NRRI-300x2250.jpg

NRRI researcher Rodney Bleifuss holds pure iron nodules made with taconite concentrate. NRRI researchers have been instrumental in developing the nodule—an upgraded taconite pellet that is nearly 97 percent pure—usable by the fast-growing "mini-mill" segment of the steel industry.

The Natural Resources Research Institute at UMD is helping private industry succeed in an environmentally responsible manner.

Adam Overland

Born out of an economy in recession, in a spirit of collaboration among civic, business, and state leaders, and the University of Minnesota, the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at UMD is a Minnesota gem—or, as it was in the beginning, an iron-bearing pellet made from the rock, taconite.

The institute got its start in 1983 working with iron ore companies to lower their costs by improving manufacturing efficiency and taconite pellet quality. If "pellet" sounds inconsequential and small to you, consider that these iron ore pellets supply the blast furnaces that make the steel for everything from our cars to our kitchen knives. And northern Minnesota produces more than 75 percent of the nation's iron ore—a slice of the state economy worth billions in wages, taxes, and profits each year.

Since then, the institute has diversified, using its applied research expertise to assist both public and private industry in areas ranging from peat bogs to skateboard ramps, though it continues to work with the ore companies.

The scope of NRRI's work, especially with smaller, private businesses, is staggering—from assisting the healthcare industry by "printing" a 3D version of a patient's skull before performing surgery, to protecting plants from hungry deer by delivering a natural hot pepper concentrate through the roots of young plants (a product developed by NRRI Scientist Tom Levar, patented, and recently licensed from the U by Repellex USA, Inc.). NRRI researchers have even developed a solution for Minnesota's perennial pothole problem—a patch made by using a taconite pellet byproduct. The patch generates its own heat through a chemical reaction upon application, making a better bond in cold weather months to create a longer-lasting fix. Jostled Minnesotans and shock-worn vehicles everywhere, rejoice.

Ore to more

More NRRI Research

One-armed canoe paddle. For those with upper body disabilities, a simple canoe paddle can be a barrier that keeps them from enjoying Minnesota's abundant lakes, rivers, and streams. One woman set out to change that by inventing a paddle that is fully functional using one arm. NRRI was able to help her move her idea forward with its rapid prototyping capabilities.

Efficient corn ethanol processing
. NRRI recently patented a method to extract more usable products from corn ethanol process waste. Called DDGS (Distillers Dried Grains and Solubles), the low protein grain can be fed to cattle. NRRI chemist Pavel Krasutsky developed the method, now in pilot scale production.

ThermoWood. NRRI research on a special method for heat-treating Minnesota red pine could mean that regional window and door manufacturers won't have to truck in wood from the western United States.

Invasive earthworms
. There's a new ecosystem enemy on the loose and headed this way. Asian Jumping Worms are highly active, destructive earthworms that have been accidentally let loose in compost piles. NRRI scientist Cindy Hale has spent the past 10 years studying the problems caused by well-known European earthworms—nightcrawlers and angleworms. Now she's sounding the alarm for the Asian variety, before they spread.

Deployable emergency housing. A unique niche product using Minnesota wood resources and products, House3 (House-cubed) can be transported to emergency situations or used as semi-permanent housing for a variety of needs. It assembles onsite in about six hours into a three-bedroom house, plumbing and electrical included. Though research has been ongoing since before the Hurricane Katrina disaster, NRRI director Mike Lalich says a recent demonstration for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave House3 new direction.

"FEMA challenged us saying, 'Don't design a home for New Orleans—design one for your part of the country,'" says Lalich. Thus, the home is built with the Midwest in mind. Watch a time-lapse video of House3 being assembled.

NRRI's Mike Lalich has been with the institute from its start, hired as its first permanent director in 1984. His background is in industrial research and development, and he's watched the NRRI blossom from initial budget levels of around $1.6 million to about $14 million today, as well as a staff that's grown from a handful to 150. Lalich recalls the climate at the start.

"In the late '70s and early '80s, the iron and steel industry, and the natural resources industry in general just tanked. Leaders got together and said, 'What do we do about this economy?' One of the ideas was an applied research institute that would help stabilize the existing industry, diversify jobs, and do it all in an environmentally sensitive manner," says Lalich, essentially summing up NRRI's mission.

Take, for example, Northern Contours, a kitchen cabinet company that launched in 1992 by using a "membrane press" technology developed by NRRI. As it grew, the company continued to use NRRI's expertise to help expand its product line and create manufacturing efficiencies.

"We updated their press, computerized it, and worked with them hand-in-hand in 'lean' manufacturing," says Lalich. The company has managed to hold steady through the recent recession and now employs about 500 people. "It's just an outstanding example of what you can do with an early relationship with an entrepreneur," says Lalich. "The sooner we can be shoulder-to-shoulder with private industry the better."

For another example of NRRI work, consider your bed. Every year Americans purchase about 40 million mattresses, each lasting about 11 years. Several million are discarded each year.

"Mattresses are just a disaster…a real problem for landfills," says Lalich. The steel springs don't compact well, and aren't easily recycled since shipping them to foundries spring-loaded isn't economical. This frustrated NRRI researcher Tim Hagen as he tried to find markets for the mattress components.

A Duluth entrepreneur and inventor learned of the problem through NRRI and together they built a machine that compresses several mattress springs into smaller cubes that can be used by steel foundries nationwide. Goodwill Industries in Duluth purchased a press, and in 2009, PPL Industries in Minneapolis started a similar mattress recycling effort in partnership with Hennepin County. Together, the two companies are now deconstructing and recycling more than 30,000 mattresses per year. "It just goes to show you what you can do when you're thinking environmentally," says Lalich.

Skateboard to cutting board

Loll Designs and Epicurean Cutting Surfaces also rely on NRRI's ongoing product development and lean manufacturing techniques to compete globally. The two companies began as one in 2003 when business owners Tony Ciardelli, and Greg and Dave Benson, looked for new uses for waste material from their skateboard ramp manufacturing company. Using NRRI's testing facilities, Epicurean ultimately created a natural paper composite cutting board that has become so successful that the owners sold the skateboard company to focus solely on cutting boards. Its sister company, Loll Designs, makes durable outdoor furniture using recycled plastics, although originally, it too used leftover skateboard ramp material.

Lately, NRRI has returned to its roots in research and development for the Iron Range, which may be an emerging precious metals frontier. NRRI geologists have been focusing on better understanding the occurrence of copper, nickel, and associated precious metals (platinum, palladium, silver) in Northern Minnesota to provide exploration companies with geological information to improve their chance of success. The impact could be significant. A 2009 report by UMD's Labovitz School of Business and Economics showed that "non-ferrous" mining (copper, nickel, etc.) development could contribute an additional $1.5 billion in wages, rents, and profits annually to Minnesota's economy by 2013.

In addition, NRRI researchers have been instrumental in developing a new, high-quality iron nodule—an upgraded taconite pellet that is nearly 97 percent pure iron (up from 67 percent)—usable by the fast-growing "mini-mill" segment of the fuel industry, says Lalich.

Although state funding still makes up a significant portion of NRRI's budget, the institute has sought additional resources from federal contracts and grants and private industry. Initially, says Lalich, "our goal and role was to help the private sector and the economy—we weren't so focused on getting paid to do it—a successful business was payment enough."

Today, NRRI is especially focused on income gained from intellectual property development, working with the Office for Technology Commercialization. In February, University Vice President for Research Tim Mulcahy praised NRRI, recognizing its efforts during an annual Innovations Ceremony on the Twin Cities campus. During the 2009–10 fiscal year, NRRI submitted six industry-related patents; Repellex and the taconite based pothole patch became licensed products. More products like these are sure to keep the institute supporting industry in behind-the-scenes ways, in good times and bad, to improve their products, efficiency, and productivity…and keep people working.

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