Our Power

Capturing magic in coal country

Glen Ullin’s Abrasives Inc. harnesses the benefits of Minnkota bottom ash in its signature blasting material.


Kaylee Cusack


June 20, 2024

Beauty truly lies in the eye of the beholder, especially when that eye belongs to Russell Raad, president of Abrasives Inc. As he walked through his company’s processing plant in Glen Ullin, N.D., he looked with a businessman’s admiration to large, glittering mounds of coal slag to his left.

“Those piles are all Black Magic,” he said. “Well, soon to be.”

Raad and the team at Abrasives Inc. have found a way to responsibly capitalize on the bottom ash waste of the coal-based power plants of western North Dakota, including Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Milton R. Young Station near Center, N.D. Bottom ash (which includes coal slag) is the coarse, gravelly leftovers of burning lignite coal in a boiler for electricity generation. It also makes for excellent sandblasting material.

Piles of unprocessed coal slag dry out at the Abrasives Inc. plant site. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

With that, a mutually valuable partnership began to emerge in the 1990s between Abrasives Inc. and Minnkota. Minnkota could earn an additional revenue stream while giving a second life to a large portion of its bottom ash, which is otherwise safely deposited and stored in environmentally regulated landfills. Abrasives Inc. could process that waste into a low-cost blast material for work sites.

The business model quickly thrived after it was discovered that native sand, when used as a sandblasting material and broken down, could lead to silicosis, a lung disease. The industry sought safer alternatives, and coal slag fit the bill. Abrasives Inc. branded its coal slag product as Black Magic®, and it took off. Now, Black Magic is used across North America, from blasting large ship hulls on the coasts to cleaning bridge joints at home in North Dakota.

“There are a lot of benefits. First, it can cut down the price of the project,” Raad said. “We have had more people tell us, ‘We can do more with your product than with the competitor’s product.’ And that’s coal slag to coal slag. You hear enough comments like that and you say, you know, we’re doing something right.”

As coal slag is sifted through screens, itʼs sorted into five different usable sizes. Ash that is too large or too fine is brought back to Minnkota for disposal. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

Beneficial bottom ash

Monday through Friday, Abrasives Inc. truck drivers make the one-hour journey from Glen Ullin to Center to load up 28 tons of the Young Station’s bottom ash. Upon their return to Glen Ullin, the drivers unload the ash onto a conveyor system, a routine that takes less than five minutes. Then the drive to Center begins again.

Between all of the drivers and different plant sites, this back and forth occurs around 18 times a day. That’s more than 500 tons of bottom ash daily, which is ultimately dried, sorted into five different sizes, and bagged and palletized with automation technology to await a railcar or truck ride across the country.

One of several daily truckloads of Minnkota bottom ash is unloaded at the Glen Ullin site. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

“Right now, we’re telling our green story. This is recycled, repurposed material,” Raad explained, adding that 86%-88% of the material they process is ultimately harvested for use. The rest, bottom ash that is too fine or too coarse, is returned to the plant site for safe disposal.

“Our recycling effort with bottom ash has always been a feather in our cap,” said Scott Hopfauf, Environmental Superintendent at Minnkota’s Young Station. “We are supplying a local business, and their employees are benefiting from our waste versus landfilling it. We’re recycling products.”

Minnkota has always done its best to stay ahead of regulations on plant waste. Hopfauf notes that the liners Minnkota uses for its disposal facilities exceed the environmental requirements on thickness, and every bit of waste is recorded and accounted for. Even after waste is taken to another site (like Abrasives Inc.), Minnkota remains watchful that it is either used as intended or returned to the plant site to be disposed of safely. “We’ve been good stewards. We’ve done things right – either as the rules require, or above and beyond,” Hopfauf said.

Abrasives Inc. president Russell Raad scoops a sample of Black Magic at the Glen Ullin, N.D., plant. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

Not all of Minnkota’s coal slag is made into blasting material and sold. Another beneficial reuse arises every winter when the local city, county and state road crews use it for traction control.

“We give it away free to the transportation departments, so the taxpayers are saving money because they’re not buying sand,” Hopfauf said. “So we’ve always been proud of that.”

Magic in North Dakota

Raad and Hopfauf have worked closely since 2006, when they joined Abrasives Inc. and Minnkota, respectively. They’ve guided each other toward efficiencies along the way, sharing advice and navigating the ups and downs of the energy industry. The companies depend on each other’s success.

Through the partnership, Abrasives Inc. has continued to prosper. A company that started with 13 employees in North Dakota has now grown to 47 nationwide, with additional sites in Minnesota, New Mexico and Texas. Shortly after Raad began, the company established an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan), offering employees ownership in the business and annual shares.

Ten years ago, Black Magic started carrying the Pride of Dakota designation, a North Dakota Department of Agriculture marketing program drawing attention to the valuable products coming from the state. Raad says he wanted to make sure that customers knew Abrasives Inc. was proud of being in North Dakota and using materials from the state.

Two-thirds of the blasting material Abrasives Inc. sells is Black Magic, but its warehouse also contains diverse media like crushed glass, garnet and steel shot. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

“It’s made in America, by American blood, sweat and tears,” he said. “A lot of the products out there now in the sandblasting industry are being imported. We believe in the American job, American labor. And with the ESOP, we’re building wealth with our own employees.”

Abrasives Inc. is always looking for new opportunities for expansion to help keep up with the growing needs of industries from automotive manufacturing to home construction to pipeline fabrication. Its sales arm now includes the parts and equipment necessary for blasting on any work site. But the company will always be known most for the little bit of magic it’s found in the coal plants of North Dakota.

“Here we go, we got another truck coming in now,” Raad observed with a squint. “That’s what you’re going to want to see.”

MAIN IMAGE: Abrasives Inc. President Russell Raad pictured at the company's processing plant in Glen Ullin, N.D. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)


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