Natural Resources Research Institute

Natural Resources Research Institute
Natural Resources Research Institute.

The Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) is a U.S. based research institute established by the Minnesota state legislature within the University of Minnesota Duluth. NRRI is a non-profit applied research organization with a mission to improve the economy of Minnesota by helping its industries compete in the global marketplace with improved or new products and more efficient processes. The institute helps launch promising small businesses and provides ongoing research and development assistance. Because Minnesota’s economy relies heavily on natural resource-based industries (forest products, taconite ore mining) the institute also focuses research on understanding problems, and developing tools to solve problems, that impede the environmentally sound development of the economy. Environmental program areas include: water resources, land resources, land-water interactions, and environmental chemistry.

Mission Statement: To foster the economic development of Minnesota's natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.[1]



The mid- to late-1970s and early-1980s were particularly difficult times for Minnesota’s natural resource based industries, especially for the taconite mining industry. In the face of a domestic steel crisis, shipments of iron ore from Northeastern Minnesota’s eight taconite plants plummeted. Growth in the taconite industry, which had begun in the 1950s, ended and employment in this critical base industry dropped from about 16,000 to 3,000.[1] About 2,000 supply companies on the Iron Range, in Duluth and elsewhere in the state were also critically impacted.

Perhaps not as dramatically as the taconite industry, the forest products industry was similarly impacted by the difficult economy. Northeastern Minnesota’s logging and pulp and paper companies, in particular, were affected. At that time, the overall impact on Duluth and the Iron Range economy was verging on catastrophic.[2]

In the face of these challenging times, civic, business, government, higher education and labor leaders began to focus on initiatives to help the economy. With a strong belief in its long-term value, U.S. Eighth District Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Heaney advocated for applied research. Then, in his 1982 gubernatorial campaign, Rudy Perpich proposed that a center be established to do research on such resources as peat, biomass, forest products, water and minerals.[2]

A Proposal to Establish A Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth was submitted to the Minnesota State Legislature under the seal of the Regents of the University of Minnesota. The proposal affirmed the applied nature of research at the new institute, noting that its work would be separate and distinct from the University’s Minerals Resources Research Center, and recommended the SAGE building in Duluth as an adaptable site.[2] UMD Chancellor Robert Heller worked with Governor Perpich and Judge Heaney to gain political support throughout the state.[3] The institute also had strong federal support which included that of Minnesota's 8th district congressman, Jim Oberstar.

The proposal called for the institute to be divided into four major divisions:

  1. Minerals
  2. Biomass
  3. Water
  4. Energy

The Regents proposal listed the members of the Minerals Development Commission, the Duluth High Tech Task Force and Duluth Future Task Force as endorsees of the Institute.

The simple notation of first year funding of $1,650,000 and second year funding of $2,250,000 for the Natural Resources Research Institute in Chapter 258, page 1051 of the LAWS of MINNESOTA for 1983, marks the establishment of the Institute.[2]

Starting to Operate

UMD Economics Professor Dr. Jerrold Peterson was named acting coordinator of the Institute and he began to hire temporary employees to begin the work of the Institute. An Advisory Board was established, with UMD Dean of the College of Science and Engineering George (Rip) Rapp as chair.

In August 1983, UMD Provost Robert Heller envisioned NRRI doing between $5 and $10 million per year in research and employing up to 150 staff members in five years.

Dr. Michael Lalich, with a background in industrial research and development, was hired in 1984 as the first permanent director of the Institute and began the task of development by conducting national searches for Associate Directors for each of the four divisions. Successful candidates included: Dr. Thys Johnson, a native Duluthian and Department Head of Mining at the Colorado School of Mines; Dr. Robert Naiman, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Director of a Research Station in Quebec; Dr. Eugene Shull, Associate Director of the Pennsylvania State University Combustion Laboratory; and Dr. Roy Adams, a senior research scientist at the Michigan Technological University Institute of Wood Research.

Because of Minnesota’s economic dependence on its natural resources, NRRI adopted the mission to foster economic development of Minnesota’s natural resources in an environmentally sensitive manner to promote private sector employment.

The institute’s goals are:

  1. Assisting entrepreneurs and businesses with near term economic development.
  2. Conducting applied research to develop products, processes and services that will be of future benefit to Minnesota's industries and resource managers.
  3. Improving the knowledge base of Minnesota's natural resources to assist resource managers to make sound economic and environmental decisions.[3]

The NRRI is not a teaching institution, however, it fulfills its academic goals with research conducted by faculty and students at the institute and several NRRI employees hold faculty or adjunct faculty positions. NRRI assists students by providing scholarships and research assistantships. Moreover, the applied research skills learned at NRRI are invaluable in securing employment after graduation.[3] University faculty and students interact with NRRI researchers to conduct collaborative research on a wide range of topics.

The Institute Today

With about $13 million in annual budget activity, NRRI has a staff of approximately 150 (including seasonal workers and part-time student workers, adjunct professors and visiting scientists) and functions as UMD’s principal research arm with grant and contract research from industry, and state and federal agencies.

Many of the early research directions for the institute have proven to be very productive and continue to define NRRI’s research agenda. For example, applied research to assist the taconite industry with more efficient processing and to improve pellet quality has been a mainstay of the NRRI’s minerals research since its inception. Likewise, helping the forest products industry develop value-added products and improve silvicultural practices have been primary objectives.[2] A resurgent interest in renewable energy production has refocused research on biomass as a source of energy. An early focus on ecological research to understand the role of humans and natural disturbances in regulating aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems also continues today.

In 1989, the institute was reorganized from the four original divisions to its current structure based on three research centers:

The Center for Applied Research and Technology Development (CARTD) has 70 permanent employees managed by Dr. Donald Fosnacht. Primarily, it includes elements of the original minerals and biomass divisions and conducts research on ferrous and non-ferrous minerals(minerals extraction, minerals processing and economic geology), forestry and forest products (manufacturing, housing systems, nondestructive evaluation technologies and biocomposites), peatlands and wetlands restoration, environmental remediation, chemical extractives and alternative energy. The Center added rapid prototyping capabilities in 2005.

The Center for Water and the Environment (CWE) evolved from the water division and currently has 30 staff directed by Dr. Lucinda Johnson. This center’s research strengths include ecosystem studies on birds, forests and mammals; wetlands, streams and lakes; and land/water interaction. Their focus is on the development of tools to promote sustainable management of northern ecosystems. The Center also has a computational chemistry group and Geographic Information Systems lab.

The UMD Center for Economic Development (CED) is a joint program of NRRI, the School of Business and Economics, and the College of Science and Engineering led by Elaine Hansen. An early effort by NRRI focused on developing business support to scientists and industry collaborators to help them determine the economic viability of technical efforts. These services, provided by the NRRI Business Group, were combined with programs offered by the School of Business and Economics and later on with the College of Science and Engineering to provide business assistance for clients.

NRRI Expansion Over the Years

In 1986, NRRI began a long-term relationship with United States Steel Corporation to manage its Coleraine, Minn., laboratory (CMRL). The laboratory was transferred to University ownership in 1989. As part of NRRI's CARTD, the minerals lab has a three-pronged strategy for improving taconite ore products from the Iron Range: flowsheet improvement, use of by-product rock for construction and highway purposes, and the development of value-added iron nodules from the iron ore concentrate. Serving all Minnesota taconite plants, the research projects regularly reach the stage of commercial implementation after testing and demonstration in the lab’s large pilot plants. The lab is currently developing a focus on extraction of non-ferrous minerals from Northeast Minnesota's Duluth Complex of copper, nickel and precious metals-bearing ore. The Coleraine lab is also delving extensively into research to characterize and identify alternative energy and fuel sources from Minnesota resources.

NRRI received a National Science Foundation grant in 1990 to establish a geographic information system (GIS) laboratory within the Center for Water and the Environment. The visualization and spatial modeling techniques, along with state-of-the-art procedures developed in the GIS lab, give NRRI an advantage in the very competitive environment of procuring federally sponsored research grants and contracts. The Center’s scientists are recognized around the world for their expertise in landscape ecology and the application of GIS technology for addressing natural resource questions.[4]

A field station was established in Ely, Minn., in 1999 to study microscopic algae (diatoms) as indicators of water quality and for paleolimnology research to understand environmental trends through analysis of sediment profiles.

NRRI acquired 525 acres of drained peatland in Zim, Minn., in 1986. The Fens Research Site serves as an area for peatland restoration research and provides wetland mitigation credits for area road construction projects.

Some Accomplishments

Research at the Coleraine laboratory assisted the taconite industry transition from acid pellets to fluxed pellets, the current standard product for the industry. The laboratory is also developing an alternative way to remove fine materials that rub off taconite pellets during shipping. This fines removal system does not require water or screens (as required by previous methods), and is faster and more economically efficient, with the potential to save the taconite industry millions of dollars.[5]

From its inception, the Institute has focused on the Duluth Complex, a minerals deposit 140 miles long and 28 miles wide arching up the north shore of Lake Superior, as having the greatest regional potential for non-ferrous mining. In particular, NRRI geologists have been focusing on a better understanding of the occurrence of copper and nickel, along with associated precious metals in Minnesota such as platinum, palladium, silver and gold. The purpose is to provide exploration companies with a better geological understanding of this mineralogy to improve their chance of success. After years of environmental research and project development, Polymet is poised to begin mining non-ferrous metal deposits from the Duluth Complex after it completes an environmental review.[6]

In the area of value-added wood products, NRRI has helped numerous companies in their effort to start up or expand. The Institute received a National Science Foundation grant (it expired in 2007) which focused on helping 10 to 15 wood products companies in Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan per year with lean manufacturing techniques and product development. These activities are still ongoing. Examples of successful projects include Northern Contours, which NRRI helped with start-up and now employs about 500 people, and Hill Wood Products, an established wood products company, which received product development assistance to build a new product line.

Other companies assisted by NRRI include Apprise Technologies, a Duluth-based company, which was established as a result of research conducted at NRRI and then incubated at NRRI for several years. Apprise Technologies started with marketing a solar powered buoy system and a line of optical sensors, employing about 25 people at a West Duluth location. It was bought by Ecolab, Inc. in 2007. Chromaline (now Ikonics) was given assistance in developing environmentally friendly water-based chemicals for screen printing. Van Technologies was assisted in start-up with a line of environmentally compliant coatings. Loll Designs and Epicurean Cutting Surfaces also rely on NRRI’s ongoing product development and lean manufacturing techniques to compete globally.

In 2001, the Center for Water and the Environment received a $6 million dollar, four-year award to study some 80 biological indicators of the health of the entire Great Lakes system. The Great Lakes Environmental Indicators project employed eight University of Minnesota and NRRI scientists in the effort, along with 20 collaborators from institutions around the Great Lakes. A companion grant from the same source focused on the identification of "reference conditions" in the Great Lakes. Protocols and methods developed as part of those projects are being employed by regional managers to maintain and improve the quality of the Great Lakes.[7] In 2010, NRRI was recommended for federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding to build on that past research.

Partial Listing of Current Research Activity

  • Direct reduction technologies for pure iron nodules
  • Use of taconite tailings as road aggregate and road patch
  • Effects of invasive earthworms on forest ecosystems
  • Development of sampling methods for hard-bottom habitats in the Great Lakes
  • Deployable emergency relief housing
  • Hybrid poplars for the pulp and paper industry
  • Biomass and torrefaction for alternative energy
  • Predicting effects of climate and land-use change on cold-water fish habitat in lakes
  • Predicting effects of climate change on Minnesota's water resources
  • Monitoring songbirds for increasing and decreasing species
  • Research on declining moose populations in Minnesota
  • Finding markets for recyclable materials in old mattresses
  • Use of mathematical modeling and environmental chemistry for drug discovery
  • Stream restoration and stormwater runoff reduction
  • Lean manufacturing techniques for wood products industry
  • Non-destructive wood testing
  • More efficient corn ethanol processing


  1. ^ Saint Paul Pioneer Press, by Tom Webb, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. Mar. 1, 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d e The Will and the Way, published by Manley Goldfine and Donn Larson, 2004, chapter 30 by Mike Lalich.
  3. ^ a b c UMD Comes of Age: The First 100 Years, by Ken Moran and Neil Storch, 1996
  4. ^ Johnson, L.B. and G. E. Host. 2010. Recent developments in landscape approaches for the study of aquatic ecosystems, Journal of the North American Benthological Society 29(1): 41-66 (25th Anniversary Issue).
  5. ^ NRRI Now, Autumn 2004
  6. ^ Duluthian magazine, November, 2010, Vol. 46, Issue 6
  7. ^ Journal of Great Lakes Research, International Association for Great Lakes Research, Vol. 33, Special Issue 3, 2007, pp. 1-12.

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