Meet the Researcher: Rodney Johnson brings decades of experience to focus on the future of Minnesota's Iron Range.
To know Rodney Johnson is to know iron ore. He’s travelled the world – from Australia to Canada – to work on deposits and on projects in all aspects of mining – exploration, geometallurgical modeling, estimating resources and reserves, environmental assessment and more.
All this experience is now embodied in the role of NRRI’s Endowed Taconite Chair position. It’s a position funded by the Permanent University Trust Fund which is supported by mineral leases on lands the University owns. In this role, and as a geometallurgist, Johnson works to improve the profitability of mining operations by enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of ore and mining waste, mine planning and mineral concentrating. All this with a careful focus on minimizing environmental impacts.
Minnesota’s Iron Range has a long history, but what Johnson is especially excited about is its future. He is developing a long-term, integrated program called “Iron of the Future” to help iron ore operations be more profitable today while incorporating new, reduced impact technologies and transitioning to value-added products from ore deposits available in the future.
“This program will help extend the life of Minnesota’s taconite mines and help them transition to producing new products,” said Johnson. “We’re also striving to improve the environment by reducing energy consumption, eliminating reliance on fossil fuels, more efficient use of water and reducing emissions.”
While he’s setting the framework for this new program, Johnson is counting on the interdisciplinary efforts of scientists across NRRI and the University – geologists, mineralogists, metallurgists, hydrologists, ecologists, aqueous chemists, geochemists, materials scientists and resource economists.
“Having the broad skillsets within NRRI and throughout the University is an amazing resource,” he said. “It’s what attracted me to this research institute and this position.” Johnson joined the NRRI staff in 2017 after 10 years as President and Chief Scientist at Rod Johnson & Associates, Inc., in Negaunee Michigan.
With a team of iron ore experts, his consulting firm participated in iron ore, copper-nickel and volcanic massive sulfide (VMS) projects in the U.S. and abroad. Johnson is proud of his work in environmental mineralogy studies that contributed to reducing the environmental impacts and now engages NRRI’s resource scientists in understanding the interactions between minerals and water.
Getting used to the paperwork and accounting of the University system, Johnson leans on the support he gets from central staffers Robin Oberton, Julie Ann Heinz and Julie Christopherson.
“They’ve agreed to take on the challenging task of keeping me out of trouble,” he laughed. “And that takes a lot of work!”
A skilled pen and ink artist, Johnson is finding that staying close to home is offering more time to draw. He’s also enjoying watching his wife tackle a new pottery hobby.