New forms of iron for greener steel can also help with mining cleanup

March 12, 2023: First it was natural iron ore, then taconite. Can the Iron Range make the leap to produce and process, at scale, the new forms of iron needed by a rapidly decarbonizing steel industry? Aaron Brown posed that question in a January Minnesota Reformer article, “Hope for the Iron Range economy, but we must put the past behind us” (read it online or as a PDF). Brown is an author, columnist, and college instructor whose voice— and street cred, coming from generations of Range miners— is raising public awareness of the global economic changes that are revolutionizing the iron-to-steel industry. 

Taconite-fed blast furnaces are a relic, he points out. Worldwide, they’re being replaced by electric arc furnaces, fed by recycled steel and by direct-reduced iron (DRI) products in a far more efficient process. And DRI has other innovative uses, including its role in the sulfate remediation method pioneered by Clearwater Biologic. 

“Environmental engineer Jeffrey Hanson is also working on an iron-based solution to the sulfate problem,” Brown notes. “His Clearwater Biologic company tested the use of anaerobic bacteria in consuming sulfates in a mine pit near Babbitt. These bacteria consume the sulfates as food, creating waste that can then be processed with DRI into harmless, even marketable byproducts.

“Try to wrap your head around this. These newer, purer iron ore products from northern Minnesota can create steel, of course, but could also be part of the delivery of renewable energy sources to make that steel and also the environmental mitigation of mining water waste. It’s like a shiny new pan that cooks dinner for you and then cleans itself.”

Read more from Aaron Brown at  

Photo: Electric arc furnace technology takes many forms, here as a mini-mill.

Source: David McNew/Getty Images, reprinted from Minnesota Reformer