Duluth – For more than a century, iron ore mined from Minnesota’s Iron Range and formed into taconite pellets has fed enormous blast furnaces at steel mills around the Great Lakes in old rust belt cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Hamilton, Ontario.
After the iron ore is combined with coal and limestone in 12-story-high stacks, the mixture is heated to more than 2,600 degrees to create the molten iron needed for steel. That steel has helped manufacture everything from toy wagons to pickup trucks.
But in the few months since steel companies on the Iron Range laid off about 1,000 mineworkers — one out of every five workers in a region where mining makes up about a third of the economy — two trends in the steel industry have Iron Range watchers feeling uneasy.
Even as officials contend with the current downturn, many worry about a longer-term question with even larger economic consequences. At issue is whether Minnesota is producing the right kind of iron ore product for a changing steel industry.
First, the blast furnaces that Minnesota taconite pellets feed are disappearing, said Brian Hiti, a senior policy adviser on mining for the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. Since 2006, he said, the number of blast furnaces in the United States has fallen from 28 to 21.
“The tonnage of steel produced in those blast furnaces has been reduced by about 10 million tons,” Hiti said.
The last new blast furnace in the United States was built in the 1970s. These days, steel companies like fast-growing Nucor are instead building electric arc furnaces, “mini mills” that use scrap metal or a more pure form of iron than taconite pellets. They’re a lot more flexible and efficient than blast furnaces.
“That’s kind of the [bogeyman] that’s out there,” Hiti said. “The growing part of the market is the electric furnace market.”
The new market uses about 60 percent of the steel produced in the United States.
“So you have to be looking to where your customer is going and make sure you provide a product that they can use,” Hiti said.
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