What is iron ore?
Iron ore consists of rocks and minerals from which iron can be extracted. Ore is most often found in the form of hematite and magnetite, though goethite, limonite and siderite types are also common. Approximately 98 percent of the iron ore produced in the world is used to make steel.
Iron ore is part of our everyday lives and our modern world would look completely different without it. 98% of world iron ore is used to make steel, which accounts for over 90% of all metals used in the world. Steel is used in building for so many things, from cars, trains and ships through to the high rise buildings in our cities and the bridges that connect us. Steel is used to create pipes, cars, ships, engines, roofs, nails, nuts, bolts, tools, machinery, in building & construction, to make white goods, in manufacturing, food cans and much more.
Metallic iron is virtually unknown on the surface of the Earth except as iron-nickel alloys from meteorites and very rare forms of deep mantle xenoliths. Although iron is the fourth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, comprising about 5%, the vast majority is bound in silicate or more rarely carbonate minerals. The thermodynamic barriers to separating pure iron from these minerals are formidable and energy intensive, therefore all sources of iron used by human industry exploit comparatively rarer iron oxide minerals, primarily hematite.
Prior to the industrial revolution, most of the iron was obtained from widely available goethite or bog ore, for example during the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Prehistoric societies used laterite as a source of iron ore. Historically, much of the iron ore utilised by industrialised societies has been mined from predominantly hematite deposits with grades of around 70% Fe. These deposits are commonly referred to as “direct shipping ores” or “natural ores”. Increasing iron ore demand, coupled with the depletion of high-grade hematite ores in the United States, after World War II led to the development of lower-grade iron ore sources, principally the utilisation of magnetite and taconite.
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Iron is the world’s most commonly used metal – steel, of which iron ore is the key ingredient, representing almost 95% of all metal used per year. It is used primarily in structural engineering applications and in maritime purposes, automobiles, and general industrial applications (machinery).
Iron-rich rocks are common worldwide, but ore-grade commercial mining operations are dominated by the countries listed in the table aside. The major constraint to economics for iron ore deposits is not necessarily the grade or size of the deposits because it is not particularly hard to geologically prove enough tonnage of the rocks exists. The main constraint is the position of the iron ore relative to the market, the cost of rail infrastructure to get it to market and the energy cost required to do so.
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