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Sponge Iron


Sometimes the best ideas never come to fruition, and sometimes really dumb ideas gain wide popularity. This story tells only of a great idea.

In 1943, when World War II was raging and the U.S. used massive quantities of steel to help win the war, a wonderful and logical idea percolated in North Dakota and Minnesota.

The highest-quality iron ore from the Minnesota Iron Range was running out. Meanwhile, steel supplies were running low as the nation required ever more iron to make ships, tanks, artillery, and jeeps. So, a solution was suggested in the form of sponge iron.

Sponge iron was a type of iron produced directly from iron-ore in a furnace fired by low-cost peat or lignite rather than first smelting ore in a blast-furnace using expensive coking-coal and then re-melting it.

On this date, in 1943, the Bismarck Tribune mentioned the possibility of establishing sponge iron facilities in North Dakota. The idea had been articulated earlier in June by North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye, who called for public support of federal programs to develop new sources of iron, especially for investigating sponge-iron initiatives.

Senator Nye noted that Minnesota’s best iron ore was “being rapidly depleted,” and that Minnesota’s plentiful low-grade ore should be made into sponge iron. He pointed out that the process could be fueled by North Dakota’s vast resources of lignite coal.

Nye’s logic was impeccable. The simple sponge-iron process involved mixing iron ore with lignite; heating it to the point of “incipient fusion,” and removing “moisture, silica and oxygen” to make sponge-surfaced iron.

Senator Nye’s idea was brilliant. Sponge-iron plants could be built near lignite coal mines at Beulah and Hazen, and near the Iron Range at Hibbing and Eveleth.

With iron-making plants in both states, Nye said trains would be fully loaded going back and forth, “bringing the ore to one state and the lignite to the other.”

Senator Nye believed that his state’s 600 billion tons of lignite was “better than ordinary coal in the sponge iron process because of the high percentage of hydrogen gas” it produced.

Experimentation followed, but ultimately, Minnesota instead developed a way to make low-grade taconite into iron pellets for steel production. Consequently, sponge-iron plans faded away into unfulfilled, lignite-fueled, dreams.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Holt to Present N.D. Farm Labor Problem to Patterson,” Bismarck Tribune, June 26, 1943, p. 1.

“Nye Predicts Probe of Sponge Iron Possibilities,” Bismarck Tribune, June 18, 1943, p. 3.

Minnesota Iron and Dakota Coal Valuable,” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, June 19, 1943, p. 4.

“It May Help Us,” Bismarck Tribune, October 26, 1942, p. 5.

“Urge Lignite Tests at University Be Expanded,” Bismarck Tribune, March 8, 1945, p. 5.

“Plan Experiments on Processing Hydrogen From Lignite Coal,” Mason-City Globe-Gazette, April 26, 1944, p. 9.

“Sponge Iron,” Salt Lake Tribune, June 18, 1935, p. 18.

“Sponge Iron,” Escanaba [MI] Daily Press, February 21, 1935, p. 7.

“Lignite Coal May Be Used Smelting ‘Sponge Iron,’” Bismarck Tribune, March 25, 1943, p. 12.

“Dakotans Will Attend Sponge Iron Hearings,” Bismarck Tribune, May 8, 1943, p. 11.