DULUTH — By any method that the Duluth Complex is rated, several experts say the nonferrous potential embedded in the geologic region makes it the largest mineral deposits ever.
The complex stretches from near Duluth northeast and north to near the Canadian border. Copper, nickel and precious metals group elements (platinum-palladium) are a major part of minerals in the complex. Two companies, PolyMet and Twin Metals, are preparing for production or getting near that goal after environmental review and permits are obtained. More companies are busy exploring other locations for deposits.
“I have no doubt this will prove to be the biggest undeveloped deposit,” said Jim Miller, a geology professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Another researcher, George Hudak, minerals division director at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, agreed. “This is the largest untapped copper-nickel deposit in the world,” he said.
• COPPER: According to Miller, two deposits in Chile are the largest, Chuquicamata and El Teniente, with the Duluth Complex third-largest.
• NICKEL: Top global deposits are at Sudbury, Ontario, Canada and at Norilsk, Russia. Duluth comes in third.
• PMG (Precious metals group): Bushveld in South Africa is tops in platinum production and deposits, while Norilsk, Russia is the leading palladium producer. Duluth comes in third.
Although there has been some nonferrous mineral exploration in Minnesota in the 1960s to 1980s, a number of factors have come together to bring the Duluth Complex to the forefront of nonferrous deposits to be developed. Increasing population helping increase demand, the ongoing depletion of known and developed world resources, and the advancement of technology in using a cleaner, safer process to extract minerals, have all combined to put Duluth at the top, said Peter Clevenstine, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Lands and Minerals Division assistant director.
“It’s just too large not to be developed,” he said.
“Copper and nickel are resources we use all the time,” Miller explained. “We can always reuse this material.”
Precious metals have become more important for catalytic converters on vehicles and other uses. The lower percentage of sulfide in the Duluth Complex, at 1 to 2 percent, is much lower than copper mined in the western U.S. Closed-circuit hydrometallurgical methods, as compared to older-style, polluting smelter methods used in processing the nonferrous metals, are “a very efficient process,” Hudak said. “That’s a big differentiating process.”
The U.S. still has huge reserves of lower-quality iron ore, taconite, but other countries such as Brazil and Australia have higher ore grade, much larger reserves and cheaper means of producing. It costs about $30 a ton to process iron ore in Brazil. It costs about $55 a ton on the Range, which then is shipped elsewhere.
“The cost is much higher for us,” said Don Fasnacht, director of the Center for Applied Research and Technology Development at NRRI.
Another consideration for developing the Duluth Complex is for national security. Dependence on materials not within American borders can be harmful to the country, he said, “As a U.S. citizen, I think I’d want to have control over our resources,” Fasnacht added.
One mineral, nickel, is especially crucial for steelmaking and other processes.
“This deposit holds a significant percentage of our domestic resources for these same metals,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director for MiningMinnesota, a trade group for nonferrous mining, He noted that for nickel, “we are 100 percent dependent on foreign countries.”
For copper, Americans consume twice as much as is produced in the country, he said.
Research can help find ways to keep Range iron ore cheaper and more competitive, in taconite aggregate sales, and two methods already in use, Mesabi Nugget almost-pure iron nuggets, and reuse of iron tailings piles by Magnetation, he said.
Already, there has been much interest and involvement in the Duluth Complex from around the world. “We have a global marketplace, with global investment into Minnesota,” Ongaro said.
Mining giant Antofagasta of Chile is partnering with Twin Metals, while Glencore of Switzerland is helping PolyMet with resources. The three major nonferrous mining firms in the complex, PolyMet, Duluth Metals (which controls 60 percent of Twin Metals) and exploring firm Teck American, are all Canadian based.
Minnesota environmental standards and technology will help to produce high-quality products, compare with other countries which are heavy polluters, Miller said. “We have the technology to show the rest of the world how to do it right.”
And the time to develop the Duluth Complex, he observed, for high-paying jobs and the state economy, is now.
There is a window now of about 50 to 100 years to develop complex to mine the ore, he said, as the technology, skilled workforce and infrastructure are present on the Range already, while taconite mining is still going on.
“It’s not a matter of if,” Miller said of mining the Duluth Complex. “It’s a matter of when.”
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