Steel is the backbone of modern civilisations; without it, we’d be literally back in the dark ages. Used in almost anything you can imagine, iron and its purer form, steel, are crucial in everything from tin cans to household appliances to the most monumental human constructions like bridges and city towers. But even though we’re surrounded by steel every day, the question remains: where did it all come from? The answer is right underneath our feet. Iron Ore is a naturally occurring mineral element that’s been around for billions of years, well before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Listed on the periodic table as Fe, iron ore has been refined into iron for thousands of years. The Roman Empire used it to build its civilisation, and during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, it became the precursor to producing steel on a mass scale.  As steel products became more sought after, demand for iron ore increased dramatically. Today, around 2.5 billion tonnes of it are mined yearly, with 98% of its iron destined for the steel smelter.  But before it’s blended and rolled out into its many forms, steel was iron, and iron was iron ore, locked up underground in hard rock deposits. So where does our iron ore come from, how do we get it out of the ground, and what does the process look like?  We’ll explore these topics in today's article on iron ore mining and its role in our modern societies.

Iron Ore Mining: It’s as Old as the Hills

Archeologists know it: humans have been working with iron for a long time, with evidence dating back to 3200 BC! That was over 5000 years ago, and while mining and production methods have changed, the necessity of iron has remained the same. Generally located close to the surface, the discovery of iron-bearing ore brought the bronze age to an end with its singular makeup and by not requiring another metal – or alloy – to strengthen it. For reference, Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. For the first time, iron ore gave people the ability to produce metal and manufacture robust tools by simply heating it to remove impurities.  Steelmaking, however, took a little longer to emerge and has been in practice for just a few hundred years of human history. Using a process that combines coking coal with reduced iron pellets, steelmaking has become one of the world's most vital industries. In the 1800s, steelmaking really took off, allowing the manufacture of better and better tools, buildings, boats, and bridges, advancing civilisation with each iteration. It's also important to remember that at every stage of iron use, through modern steelmaking techniques, iron ore had to be mined, refined, and made ready for use. As such, it has become by far the globe’s most mined metal and mineral, making a selection of iron-bearing nations increasingly rich. Coming full circle, iron ore is now mined by equipment made of iron and steel before being sent for export aboard steel ships to countries that make steel products and send them back to the country of origin.

But How is Iron Ore Mined?

Iron ore mining is relatively simple compared to other minerals and metals that require underground tunnels and complex chemical-drive processes, like gold. Iron ore is generally sourced from open pits on the planet’s surface and typically requires only crushing before it is ready for the smelter. Like most mining, It all starts with a bang. Iron ore and its containing rock are blasted loose with high-explosives, making the ore accessible to machinery and small enough to be transported to the plant. Hauled by monster dump trucks capable of carrying over 300 tonnes of earth at a time, the ore is transported to a ROM Bin, where it begins its processing phase. Generally, and in Australia, the world's largest iron ore producer, the material is simply crushed in the jaw and then cone crusher into fines (small) or lump (bigger) product before being transported to an export facility. Everything in iron ore mining is big.  Australia possesses one of the longest private rail networks in the world, designed solely for transporting mile-long ore trains to port facilities. From there, each purpose-built ship – called Cape-Sized – is able to carry up to 400,000 tonnes of iron to large steelmaking nations, with China a prominent example. This mining and movement method is similar around the world in other iron-producing nations like Brazil, with its high-grade reserves and several other large-scale exporters.  Once offloaded at the receiving industrial hub, iron is reduced and purified in much the same way it’s been done for thousands of years, with fire. Combined with coke and scrap steel In the blast furnace, a multitude of different steel products are then manufactured for an almost unimaginable array of uses.

Summary: The Future of Iron Ore Mining

While China may be past its development peak, demand for iron is still predicted to remain strong in the coming years. Countries like India are expected to rise, somewhat offsetting the lack of demand from traditional ore buyers worldwide. Other metals like those used to manufacture rechargeable batteries – the so-called Critical Minerals – are also attracting more investment. This will make it hard for iron ore to reclaim its former glory. But as long as the world needs iron and steel to underpin our growth, iron ore will be in demand. At last check, lithium-ion powered cars are still mostly made of steel, and manufacturers are still coming up with novel applications for our most dependable metal. As countries in the developing world pick up their pace, infrastructure projects will arise, calling for concrete and steel in vast quantities. When we look back at the long history of iron, from its early mining and production to today’s mammoth ventures, it's hard to imagine a future without it. Countries that have made their fortunes on its back will surely hope that the good years last just a little while longer.    Dust suppression is a critical issue in the world of mining and resources. Learn more about GRT’s industry-leading and IoT-connected SMART Dosing Units, and discover how we’re driving better dust suppression solutions for all! If you’d like to talk with an expert, simply contact us! Your feedback is important to us.  If you enjoyed reading this Global Road Technology industry update and found it informative, please let us know by leaving a REVIEW.  


Troy Adams
Troy Adams

Troy Adams is the Managing Director of Global Road Technology (GRT) Specialising in Engineered Solutions for Dust Suppression, Erosion Control, Soil Stabilisation and Water Management. A pioneering, socially conscious Australian entrepreneur, Troy Adams is passionate about health and safety and providing innovative solutions that are cost-effective to the mining industry, governments and infrastructure sectors. Troy is also a tech investor, director of companies like Crossware, Boost, Hakkasan, Novikov and more.