During the recession of the 1980’s, mining of taconite on the Iron Range was shut down. The United States stopped making steel, which put a halt to the production of taconite ore.This caused the unemployment rate to get as high as 25 percent on the Iron Range.
To solve the problem, the Natural Resource Research Institute (NRRI) was established by the Minnesota State Legislature in 1983 to create jobs by using Minnesota’s natural resources.
“During the recession, the United States stopped making steel. When domestic steel producers stopped making steel, that meant they stopped buying taconite pellets,” said June Breneman, the public relations manager at the NRRI.
The state legislature was panicking about finding jobs and started looking into what Minnesota offered for resources.
Rocks, water and wood.
If Minnesota was going to use these natural resources to build an economic foundation, it needed to be done as resourcefully as possible.
“We do not create the jobs, we support the job creators,” Breneman said. “We’re kind of tree huggers and tree cutters working together.”
Northern Contours, a cabinet company up in Fergus Falls, Minn. is also a big partner with the NRRI.
“A couple of guys came to us in the 90’s and they wanted to start a cabinet company. They knew of this technology that would fuse this plastic coating over a really low cost base, pressed sawdust. But when you coat it with this plastic, it looks really beautiful,” Breneman said.
The NRRI assisted Northern Contours with the technical details needed in order to start-up their business.
“You need a research and development department to move product ideas forward. We were their R&D department, and now they employ about 400 people,” Breneman said.
The NRRI is currently working on producing 12 tons of bio coal per day which can be used to supplement fossil coal and help reduce the carbon output.
“Compared to fossil coal or fossil fuels, which are dug up out of the ground and have a lot of negatives that come with it, bio coal is instead made out of renewable biomass,” Breneman said.
A more well-known company that the NRRI partners up with is Epicurean, a Duluth based cutting board and kitchen accessories company.
“We have been a project partners with them from the beginning,” Breneman said.
A recent problem that Epicurean came to the NRRI with was the waste of the scraps from the cutting boards.
“Steve Johnson, a machinist here, came up with a manufacturing process for those specific weird scraps to make a new product … chopsticks,” Breneman said.
According to Breneman, the NRRI is the only research center, associated with a university, that brings all this applied research together under one roof.
“There are other places that do some of the things that we do, but one research institute associated with the university that does the breath of the things that we do? I haven’t seen it yet,” Breneman said.
**this story has been edited for clarity**