Iron Ore

This information has not been updated since 2010 and is provided for general reference purposes. For more detailed information and for the latest data, please see the Australia's Identified Mineral Resources iron ore chapter.

Australia is one of the world's major iron ore producers. Iron ore is mined mainly from secondary enrichments of banded iron formations and channel iron deposits predominantly in Western Australia. Australia has some of the largest iron ore deposits of their type and it has a significant share of the world's Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of iron ore.

Iron Ore Properties and Uses

Iron constitutes about five per cent of the Earth's crust and is the fourth most abundant element in the crust. Iron ores are rocks from which metallic iron can be economically extracted. The principal iron ores are hematite (Fe2O3) and magnetite (Fe3O4). Almost all iron ore is used in blast furnaces to make pig iron which is the main material in steelmaking. Small amounts of iron ore is used also in other applications such as coal wash plants and cement manufacturing. Iron can be alloyed with a variety of elements to produce stronger and harder products which are useful in the construction industry and in the manufacture of motor vehicles, ships, trucks, pipelines, trains and railway tracks. Iron is the most used metal accounting for about 95 per cent of the total metal tonnages produced worldwide.

Properties and uses of iron are summarised in the Australian Mines Atlas Iron Rock File.

Iron Ore Production and Exports

Australia's iron ore production in 2009 was 393.9 Mt and 97 per cent was produced in Western Australian, as reported by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES). Iron Ore exports in 2009 were valued at $30 billion.

Information on Australia's production and exports of iron ore are given in Australia Mineral Statistics and Australian Commodities which are produced quarterly by ABARES.

Iron Ore Resources and World Ranking

Australia's Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of iron ore are around 28 billion tonnes with Western Australia accounting for about 98 per cent.

Based on figures published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the latest Australian resource figures, world EDR of iron ore totals 168 billion with Australia accounting for 16.7 per cent just behind Ukraine with17.9 per cent and ahead of Russia with14.9 percent, China with 13.1 percent and Brazil with 9.5 percent. However, China is the largest iron ore producer followed by Australia, Brazil and India.

Australia's iron ore resources, reserves and production are summarised in Australia's Identified Mineral Resources on the Australian Mines Atlas .

Geoscience Australia produces maps of Australia's operating mines, mineral deposits, endowment, and processing centres.

Iron Ore Exploration and Discovery

Iron ore was first smelted in Australia in 1848 at Mittagong in New South Wales utilising a deposit discovered there in 1833 but Iron Knob in the Middleback Ranges of South Australia is widely recognised as the first commercial iron ore mine in Australia. Mount Minden Mining commenced mining iron ore at Iron Knob in 1880 and from 1899 until 2000 BHP Ltd operated mines in the Middleback Ranges. In 2000 Onesteel Ltd became the operator.

Other discoveries were Savage River in Tasmania (1887), Frances Creek (1956) and Mount Bundey (1961) in the Northern Territory, the Constance Ranges and Mount Biggenden in Queensland and Nowa Nowa (1887) in Victoria.

In Western Australia early explorers noted the presence of iron ore in the Hamersley Ranges and described Koolyanobbing in the Yilgarn while geologists referred to the Pilbara as "essentially an iron country". The Commonwealth Government placed an embargo on all exports in 1938 to conserve available known resources before an export industry could be established, but when this was lifted in 1960 it led to a boom in iron ore exploration resulting in the discovery of the Koolanooka deposit in the Yilgarn in 1961 and Mt Tom Price the Pilbara region in 1962. Many discoveries followed including Robe River, Paraburdoo, Hope Downs, Marandoo, Jimblebar, Yandicoogina, Mining Area C and West Angelas. More recently, large increases in exploration expenditure has lead to the discovery of many new deposits including, North Star, Glacier Valley, Cashmere Downs, Lake Giles, Ridley, Solomon, Cloud Break, Christmas Creek, Spinifex Ridge and Wodgina.

Since the 1960's the Hamersley iron province has become one of the great iron provinces of the world and will continue to supply the bulk of Australian iron ore exports for the foreseeable future.

Highlights of mineral exploration, including iron ore, are reviewed annually in Australian Mineral Exploration Review and Australia's Identified Mineral Resources.