The Natural Resources Research Institute

Uniquely driven to balance nature with need

June Breneman

The Natural Resources Research Institute is a non-academic (we do not confer degrees), applied research laboratory of the University of Minnesota. NRRI is housed at two sites: one located in Hermantown on Highway 53 and another in Coleraine, just off Highway 169.

Readers of “a certain age” will remember the Hermantown building as the super-secret, maybe a bit scary, SAGE building – Semi-Automatic Ground Environment. It was an air defense building during the 1950s Cold War-era.  This recycled building is an apt representation of our research – reduce waste, be prepared and plan for the future.

We’ve also repurposed a former steel industry R&D facility in Coleraine, Minn., for our scaled-up mining, minerals and biomass conversion research.

Nationally unique

Unlike most university units that form in response to the needs of college students, NRRI was placed within the system in response to the economically challenged 1980s recession. The state legislature – with Iron Ranger Rudy Perpich in the Governor’s office – understood that the state’s natural resources drove much of the economy. And he wanted University of Minnesota’s brainpower behind the effort. UMD economics professor Jerrold Peterson was assigned interim director of NRRI in 1983 until Michael Lalich was hired and brought on in 1984.

Peterson referred to the newly formed institute as an “experiment” because there was nothing else like it in the country. “As far as I know there is no institute like this one will become,” he said during a 1983 interview with UMD Statesman, comparing NRRI to an industry R&D facility. “[But] we’re not trying to research and develop for a firm; we’re trying to do it for a state.”

Rocks, water & wood

So, while much has changed since the early 1980s – internet, cost of everything, artificial intelligence everywhere – I’m constantly amazed at how relevant the original NRRI mission is still today.  The foundational mining efficiencies and geology characterization our researchers started then, continue to inform industry decisions and resource availability.

Ongoing monitoring and protection of precious freshwater resources spans all research efforts. Changing forest resources and new bio-based opportunities continue to drive management decisions. 

In the past 40 years, NRRI has built the expertise and reputation needed by state agencies, industries, entrepreneurs and other governmental partners that allow for informed decision-making. To be clear, we’re not the decision makers, more the boots-on-the-ground to provide the data.

Strategic focus

Balancing economic need with environmental sustainability is a complicated business. There’s a web of stakeholders and considerations – from industrial decarbonization to protecting wildlife habitat. How does NRRI frame its work across this spectrum?

Three Strategic Initiatives describe NRRI’s research focuses: Ecosystem Resilience, Future Forest Industries and Iron/Minerals of the Future. These constantly morphing, often overlapping, initiatives represent some 150 research projects underway. And the funding comes from a complex collection of federal and state agency grants, contracts, legislative and university support.

My boss, Rolf Weberg, came to NRRI in 2014 to take on the role of Executive Director, bringing decades of industry experience with him. He sees exciting opportunities ahead for Minnesota. “Our mission to deliver integrated solutions, working with collaborators across the state and nation, addresses the state’s unique challenges on the path to those opportunities,” he says.

Project highlights

It’s when I talk about research projects underway that people really “get it.” So let me tell you about some of them. Under the “Ecosystem Resilience” umbrella, we have water scientists studying the triggers of harmful algal blooms and how to reduce aquatic invasive species. We have wildlife biologists working to understand how climate change is impacting forest critters, and avian ecologists studying bird populations to inform forest management practices. We also have environmental engineers developing ways to meet Minnesota’s low sulfate regulations for wild rice waters.

Our “Future Forest Industries” initiative is driving research to meet evolving biomass needs for emerging industries. Twenty-five years of crossbreeding has produced a patent-pending tree variety that grows to full size, about 75 feet, in about 8 to 10 years. The InnovaTree™ is attracting attention for carbon capture, pollution clean-up, quick shade and as a biomass source.

One such need for biomass includes the emerging biochar industry. NRRI is developing biochars that can filter specific pollutants (PFAS, mercury, sulfate) or can make agricultural soils more productive. Decades of R&D on thermal modification of wood – it makes low value wood species water resistant, dimensionally stable and higher value – has led to a successful new business for Northern Minnesota called Arbor Wood Co. I just heard from their CFO that they have orders backed up!

“Iron and Minerals of Future” focuses on – you guessed it – Minnesota’s evolving iron ore industries. What’s next after taconite pellets? How can Iron Range non-magnetic ore resources meet the need of the growing electric arc steel-making process? We’re helping industry reduce risk as they transition to reduced use of fossil carbon. Our metallurgists, chemists, engineers and technicians work hand-in-glove with industry partners to develop feedstock for higher value iron products and energy storage technologies, while also studying already mined minerals waste for reuse.

Partnering & growing

More from Rolf Weberg: “NRRI is in a unique position – given our location, our expertise and capabilities, and our broad relationships – to partner with the Department of Energy in decarbonization efforts. We are here to help bridge between good ideas and the full demonstration of new technologies to reduce risk and accelerate adoption and investment.”

Our research initiatives are bold and long-term efforts focused on the economy of the future. I hope you’ll read more about our work on our website:, and while there, sign up to receive my monthly newsletter. Each month brings a bit of hope to your inbox. Two decades into this gig and there hasn’t been a morning that I didn’t want to go to work. It’s fascinating and, yes, hopeful. Thanks for taking the time to learn more about NRRI.    

June Breneman is the Communications and Marketing Manager at NRRI. She has been with the Institute for 22 years. A refrain she has frequently heard from tour groups is “This is such a hopeful place.”