By Lee Bloomquist
It was the early 1980s.
Northeastern Minnesota’s iron mining industry was in the depths of a historic slump.
Thousands of miners had lost their jobs. Many were leaving the area with families in search of jobs.
And the idea of creating a natural resources research institute in the region to stimulate economic growth was being met with some controversy.
Thirty-five years later, the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) has proven its mettle.
Since its founding in July 1983, the institute, at the former Air Force base SAGE Building along Highway 53 in Duluth, and at its minerals laboratory in Coleraine, has grown into a recognized leader in delivering natural resources research and innovation.
“The impetus for this was the downturn in the taconite industry in the mid 70s to early 80s, and there was a huge debate,” said Michael Lalich, NRRI’s first permanent executive director. “When I came, it wasn’t hard to determine given the shape of the mining industry that if we didn’t do something about the research, there wouldn’t be any research – the private (mining) research labs would be closed. We had a (water) group ensconced in the Twin Cities that didn’t want to be moved up here and a proposed move of a college of forestry center (in Cloquet) that ruffled feathers. The nature of our research, the applied research versus basic research, ruffled certain feathers. And the fact that we would be competing for state funds also ruffled feathers. But the bottom line is this was a grass-roots effort by local dignitaries, politicians, industry folks and community leaders.”
NRRI’s mission statement of delivering research solutions to balance the economy, resources and environment for resilient communities has proven critical to the economic vitality of the region, state and beyond.
NRRI researchers and support staff focus on researching and driving higher value in minerals, metallurgy and mining; renewable energy; wood products and the bio economy; forest and land; water; and business and entrepreneurship.
It’s work has helped small businesses develop new products. It’s helped develop new feed stocks from the forest. It’s advanced higher-value minerals products. It’s addressed a range of water quality threats and issues. It’s worked to commercialize renewable energy initiatives. And it’s developed technological and engineering advances in the wood products and bio economy industries.
“There’s no other institute like us in the country,” said Rolf Weberg, NRRI executive director. “Show me anywhere in the country that has all the water resources we have, the mineral resources, the forestry resources, or the human resources like we do in Minnesota or Wisconsin or Michigan. You don’t see anybody playing in all six areas like us who is also associated with a major university and has ties to industry to solve problems.”
NRRI is part of the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD).
It operates with 140 staff, including nine engineers and 15 laboratory technicians at its laboratory in Coleraine, which focuses on mining research.
NRRI’s operating budget in 2017 was $17 million, according its 2017 annual report.
Exactly 60.8 percent of its funding came from the federal government, including the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Interior and the National Science Foundation.
Another 26.2 percent of its funding came from the state of Minnesota, including the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and others.
Industries supported 12 percent of institute funding. Other sources accounted for one percent.
The institute and its work is receiving support from the Minnesota Legislature more than ever.
In 2017, the legislature increased NRRI’s base funding, which hadn’t changed since the mid-1980’s, by $2 million annually.
That’s a significant boost in funding and a vote of confidence from its financial supporters for the future.
“They’re on a better path now where it seems like the legislature is more receptive to funding it,” said Mark Phillips, Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner and member of NRRI’s Strategy and Development Advisory Board. “They’re also much more receptive to what they’re doing at Coleraine. I think the future is very bright.”
“We’ve done good work and received funding,” said Weberg. “We’re focusing on the future and we have a lot of people who want to participate in the circle.”
How it began
Lalich became the institute’s first permanent executive director on April Fools’ Day 1984.
U.S. Eighth District Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Heaney, who worked with the late Gov. Rudy Perpich, was a major factor in the institute’s creation, said Lalich. Perpich, in his 1982 campaign for governor, wanted to create an institute for research on peat, biomass, forest products, water and minerals. Heaney, who was involved in many community-based affairs, wanted more jobs for the region, said Lalich. And Heaney followed through on Perpich’s wish.
“If you peel off the layers of the onion, the brains, the concept person, I think was Judge Heaney,” said Lalich. “He had a big heart. His work was out of St. Louis, Mo., but he chose to live in Duluth and was extremely interested in this region having more jobs and being more prosperous. I would give him a lot of credit for the concepts.”
Former University of Minnesota Regent Tom Reagan, Minerals Development Commission Chair Jack DeLuca, former State Reps. Tom Rukavina and Mike Jaros, UMD Chancellor Kathryn Martin, U.S. Congressman James Oberstar, Senators David Durenberger and Rudy Boschwitz, and many others, were key in moving the institute forward, according to Lalich.
The U.S. Department of Defense transferred the building to the university and the U.S. Economic Development Administration provided $1.8 million in matching money for renovations.
Initially, the institute had four divisions, – minerals, biomass, energy and water.
In 1986, NRRI started a relationship with U.S. Steel at the steel and iron ore company’s research laboratory in Coleraine. U.S. Steel had 10 researchers at the site, whom U.S. Steel turned over to NRRI. The laboratory was later transferred to University of Minnesota ownership. Today, its staff works to develop mining projects such as improving the quality of efficiency of iron ore pellets along with mercury reduction and direct-reduced iron technologies.
Weberg, a native of Mankato who graduated from UMD, a little more than four years ago left a 25-year job with DuPont Research and Development to become NRRI’s new executive director. Weberg twice said no to the NRRI job, but ended up getting talked into coming to Duluth to take a look.
“I remember flying in to take the job and it was snowing to the point where UMD was closed, so I drove a car from the Minneapolis airport up here,” said Weberg. “I recall driving from Cloquet to Duluth and thinking, “Holy crap, what have I done’!”
However, like Lalich, Weberg said he saw the passion of NRRI researchers and the huge amount of knowledge within staff.
“I saw people here who could make double the wages in industry,” said Weberg. “With the level of commitment and care they have for their work, the problems the state is facing, and quite frankly it was a way for me to pay back a bit too.”
A reorganization mirroring Weberg’s experience at DuPont, has forged a closer working environment among staff and invites others – including the state, federal government, and industry – to collaborate with the institute.
Within the four floor, 120,000 square foot institute in Duluth and the Coleraine lab, NRRI has re-shaped itself, much in the same way that businesses and industry are also re-shaping to meet challenges from abroad.
The reorganization – and by reconnecting with business, industry, education, government, and other partners – has raised NRRI’s visibility.
“The idea of taking a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to doing the work NRRI should be doing is what I believe has given us a different stature,” said Weberg. “To not only do the work we need to do in a more comprehensive way, but it also invites other people to collaborate with us more. It makes us better partners not only for the university, but for industry as well as for our agencies partners both federal and state. That, I think, is one big change, and the way we talk about ourselves and our focus on innovation versus iteration; our focus on reducing waste. Waste is bad business. Our focus on diversification and going to high value – keeping more of that money in the state versus going out of state, and most importantly embracing sustainability as a competitive advantage that we as Minnesotans really need to embrace.”
Reducing waste from existing natural resources, diversifying product offerings and supporting sustainable resource practices while valuing natural ecosystems, are three of the institute’s main themes. Research conducted by NRRI is objective and solutions-driven, said Weberg.
Major issues such as sulfides and sulfates faced by the minerals industry and municipal wastewater treatment plants will only be solved with the type of research and technology advanced by NRRI, said Phillips.
“I think there’s a lot of promise all the way around in minerals, water and energy,” said Phillips. “As a nation, we’re not going to not use minerals anymore. The only way we’re going to solve these things is through technology.”
Weberg said the institute is looking five-to-ten years down the road in its strategic planning and seeking to develop higher-value research that results in money staying within the state.
“We’re more strategically-driven,” said Weberg. “We have a strategic plan that we’re following and we’re using that effectively as a tool.”
To celebrate its 35th anniversary, public tours of the NRRI facility in Duluth will be offered from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on July 19. Four tours will be offered beginning every half hour. Refreshments will be served in the lobby.