NRRI's Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Here you can find answers to questions we commonly receive at NRRI. If you have any more questions - shoot us an email at

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What exactly does the Natural Resources Research Institute do?

It might be easier to explain what NRRI is not:

  • We don’t set policy.
  • We don’t have a teaching mission, nor do we have a degree program.
  • We don’t take sides on resource decision-making issues.

NRRI applied research informs decision-makers so they can make the best, most sustainable use of Minnesota’s natural resources. We have a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, technicians and industry-focused management personnel to drive solutions to state challenges.

The current climate crisis is amping up NRRI’s focus on adaptation and mitigation with carbon management. From our Great Lakes to small ponds. From old forests to new forests. From iron ore to new minerals opportunities. NRRI research touches what's important to Minnesota and is relevant globally. NRRI's goal is to deliver economic and environmental solutions with Minnesota focus and global relevance.

    NRRI is focused on:

    • developing sustainable, natural resource-based industries.
    • informing environmental management and policy.
    • supporting business and entrepreneurial opportunities.
    • assisting industry and communities in defining and maintaining the social license to operate.

    NRRI's role is as a non-partial, science-based resource that develops and translates knowledge by:

    • fully characterizing and defining strategic resource opportunities
    • minimizing waste and environmental impact
    • maximizing value from natural resource utilization
    • maintaining/restoring ecosystem function

    How can I work with, or partner with NRRI?

    See our Work With Us page in the top menu. We discuss our stakeholders, partners and clients there, and detail our various services and programs. 

    What services does NRRI offer?

    See our Services Page in the top menu for a listing of services, contacts and more information. 

    What is the history of NRRI?

    The History of NRRI

    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 an applied research organization that works to develop and deliver the understanding and tools needed to utilize our mineral, forest, energy and water resources in a balanced and environmentally responsible manner. 

    Addressing the Recession

    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]

    Organizing for Action

    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.

    Legislative Charter (1983)

    Foster the economic development of Minnesota's natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment. 

    *Originally published in Wikipedia. Learn more at Wikipedia.

    What is the history of the NRRI Duluth building, formerly known as the SAGE building?

    The Duluth SAGE Building

    NRRI Duluth SAGE building, a gray concrete bunker as it looked in the 1950s.

    A Relic from the Cold War

    The building that houses NRRI today was built as an air defense command center during the Cold War. Located next to Duluth’s International Airport, NRRI's Duluth facility used to contain one of the Air Force’s primary systems for detecting intruding aircraft during the 1950s-1960s.

    The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) was a system of large computers and associated networking equipment that coordinated data from many radar sites and processed it to produce a single unified image of the airspace over a wide area. SAGE directed and controlled the NORAD response to a Soviet air attack, operating in this role from the late 1950s into the 1980s. Its enormous computers and huge displays remain a part of cold war lore, and a common prop in movies such as Dr. Strangelove and Colossus.

    Powering SAGE were the largest computers ever built, IBM's AN/FSQ-7. Each SAGE Direction Center contained two FSQ-7's for redundancy, filling two floors of a large cube-shaped concrete building. Information was fed to the Direction Center from a network of radar stations as well as readiness information from various defence sites. The computers, based on the raw radar data, developed "tracks" for the reported targets, and automatically calculated which defences were within range. Subsets of the data were then sent to the many operator consoles, where the operators used light guns to select targets onscreen for further information, select one of the available defences, and issue commands to attack. These commands would then be automatically sent to the defence site via teleprinter. Later additions to the system allowed SAGE's tracking data to be sent directly to CIM-10 Bomarc missiles and some of the US Air Force's interceptor aircraft in-flight, directly updating their autopilots to maintain an intercept course without operator intervention. Each SAGE Direction Center also forwarded data to a Combat Center for "supervision of the several sectors within the division" ("each combat center [had] the capability to coordinate defense for the whole nation"). Connecting the various sites was an enormous network of telephones, modems and teleprinters.

    SAGE became operational in the late 1950s and early 1960s at a combined cost of billions of dollars. It was noted that the deployment cost more than the Manhattan Project, which it was, in a way, defending against. Throughout its development there were continual questions about its real ability to deal with large attacks, and several tests by Strategic Air Command bombers suggested the system was "leaky". Nevertheless, SAGE was the backbone of NORADs air defence system into the 1980s, by which time the tube-based FSQ-7's were increasingly costly to maintain and completely outdated. Today the same command and control task is carried out by microcomputers, based on the same basic underlying data.




    What is the history of NRRI's Coleraine facility?

    NRRI Coleraine facility seen from above.

    NRRI Coleraine: Developing ideas and strengthening industries on Minnesota’s Iron Range

    The history of NRRI’s Coleraine Laboratories is closely tied to the history of Minnesota’s Iron Range, transforming and adapting to the changing needs of the industries and economy. So let’s begin with a quick look at Minnesota’s mining history.

    Late-1880’s - Minnesota’s lean red ore deposits attracted miners to provide steel for our growing nation. In the 1950s and through the 70s, domestic lean iron ores continued to feed the hungry steel mills.  By the early-80s, however, domestic steel production was declining while worldwide steelmaking and iron ore resources soared, shocking North America’s stronghold in this market.

    1983 - The Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) was signed into legislation at the University of Minnesota Duluth to provide research for sustainable economic development to Minnesota’s natural resource-based industries, including the Iron Range.

    1986 - NRRI began a long-term relationship with United States Steel Corporation to manage its Coleraine, Minnesota, research laboratory. The laboratory was transferred to University ownership in 1989. The minerals lab developed a three-pronged strategy for improving taconite ore products from the Iron Range: flowsheet and efficiency improvement, new uses for by-product rock, 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. 

    2016 - An old train repair building was remodeled and modernized into a Biomass Conversion Lab with a goal to enhance the understanding of a variety of bio-based, commercial-scale processes, characterizing their efficiency, industry application and environmental impact. It houses an indirect-heated rotary kiln and moving bed reactor to convert woody biomass and agricultural byproducts into renewable, regional fuel products. More advanced materials are converted into solid fuels, biochars and other advanced carbon products.

    Today – NRRI’s Coleraine labs provide more efficient processes, new technologies, new ore products and non-ferrous mining possibilities—strengthening Minnesota’s mining industry for a promising future. Its reach also includes Michigan’s ore industry and minerals research for groups throughout the world. On the biomass side, NRRI continues research on torrefied biomass, hydrothermal carbonization and syngas (synthesis gas) development.

    How do you balance environmental stewardship with economic development?

    Resilient Communities

    NRRI knows that a healthy environment generates a strong economy. And a strong economy allows people to invest in their community. NRRI has a wealth of expertise to provide environmental agencies with data for informed decision-making and industry expertise to reduce environmental impact.

    • Environmental Assessment and Analysis
    • Fish and Wildlife Ecology
    • Climate Change Impacts
    • Invasive Species
    • Ecotoxicology and Environmental Chemistry
    • Sustainable Resource Management
    • Environmental Mitigation, Remediation & Restoration
    • Knowledge & Technology Transfer
    • Sustainable Communities