courtesy of Cliffs Natural Resources

Cliff's Empire Mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

If you’ve been following our coverage of iron mining in the region, this might interest you.  Cliffs Natural Resources, North America’s biggest iron ore supplier, is scrapping plans to build an iron nugget plant in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A nugget is just a little clump of very pure iron.  Big deal?  Well, here’s why the new nugget technology matters … and why Cliffs spent years studying it in cooperation with Kobe Steel of Japan.

Remember, the iron-rich regions of Michigan and Minnesota:

1) provided the iron ore

2) that made the steel

3) that helped the industrial Midwest become the industrial Midwest.

However, miners extracted so much high-grade ore, for so long, that mostly low-grade ore remains today.  Companies like Cliffs spend a lot of time and money processing that ore — essentially upgrading it into a product that contains more iron.  That product, called a pellet, is what they ship to steelmakers.

Nuggets have a far higher iron content than the pellets typically produced in the region.  They look like Junior Mints, but they’re almost 100% iron.  Very pure.  Which could make them very valuable to the next generation of steelmakers.

Check out our recent piece on a groundbreaking nugget plant in Minnesota.  Mesabi Nugget hasn’t reached full capacity yet, but it has produced more than 200,000 tons of iron nuggets.

As for Cliffs Natural Resources, the company decided a nugget plant in Michigan would not be commercially viable.  However, spokesman Dale Hemmila says that won’t prevent Cliffs from investing $60 million to extend the life of its Empire Mine to 2015.

The Empire and Tilden open pit mines are essential to the economy of the UP.  We reported earlier on one “company town” that relies on the economic oxygen of the mines.  If you’ve never been to Ishpeming, now’s your chance.