COP26 in Glasgow has solidified the push to eliminate anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with the global pact to limit global warming needing “rapid, deep and sustained reductions” in our greenhouse gas output.

That poses a problem for the steel industry which, largely reliant on coking coal to fire its blast furnaces, produces somewhere in the order of 7% of those emissions.

Steel has no true substitute, meaning finding solutions to decarbonise the sector will be essential to limiting global warming to 1.5C or lower this century.

While that’s partly a technological challenge, and one many of the world’s iron ore miners have taken on, there is a potentially bigger issue at hand.

As iron ore expert and Magnetite Mines’ (ASX:MGT) Technical Director Mark Eames points out in a white paper released last week, high-grade iron ore is needed to transition to low-emissions steelmaking. And lots of it.

The biggest issue, as Eames eloquently points out in his paper, ‘Where will future iron ore supply come from?’, is that there isn’t much around.

“There is a growing consensus that low-emissions steel will require large volumes of high-grade iron ore,” Eames says.

“For example, the International Energy Agency scenarios for emissions reduction include substantial increases in Direct Reduced Iron (DRI), which requires high-grade, low-impurity iron ore feedstock.

“A wide range of industry participants have flagged the need for higher-grade iron ore inputs to assist with the transition to low-emissions steelmaking.

“So, the question is, where will all this high-grade iron ore come from? And is it available? The challenge is that over the last 20 years or so, traded iron ore grades have gone down, not up.”

Iron ore explorer Equinox Resources says the Pilbara is still the place to be for iron ore.
Pic: John W Banagan/Stone via Getty Images.


Pilbara ores most at risk

The Pilbara region in WA is a geological marvel, already yielding over half a century of its bounty and it’s still the source of around half the world’s iron ore supply.

But with iron ore delivering $150 billion in Aussie exports last year, it has also emerged as one of the country’s biggest vulnerabilities.

Although the transition to zero emissions steel is feasible – BloombergNEF says it’ll need some US$278 billion of investment by 2050 – iron ore producing countries face challenges that go beyond funding, especially Australia.

“Australia, however, currently produces lower-grade ores, and could lose its number one place in the supply chain, if it does not invest in equipment to upgrade its product,” BloombergNEF commented.

Attempts to identify large, high-grade iron ore deposits in the Pilbara have largely been fruitless.

“Iron ore grades from Australia now average around 60%, well below the industry 62% benchmark,” Eames said.

“(Brazil’s) Vale has indicated that the world’s remaining ore bodies face depletion and beneficiation challenges, thus making it difficult to increase supply of high-grade ores.”

Eames says the traditional model has issues around quality, sustainability and competition.

“The quality of DSO is directly related to the quality of iron ore in the ground and over time, a number of orebodies have become exhausted and quality has declined,” he said.

“Steelmaking based on coking coal faces obvious environmental challenges. A supply model dominated by a small number of suppliers has raised concerns with some customer groups.”

Australia and Brazil’s direct shipping ore projects have dominated the global iron ore landscape due to their low costs and reliable supply to coke-based blast furnaces, largely in China. Eames points out that attempts to beneficiate and produce higher-grades have been largely unsuccessful.

“Some ore processing (or beneficiation) has been introduced in DSO operations, but this has partially offset declining grades rather than improving quality,” he says.

“Miners have invested in higher-grade processed ore operations (such as Rio Tinto in Canada, Anglo in Brazil and more recently FMG in Australia) but have not always faced a smooth development path.

“Efforts to develop other iron and steelmaking approaches have not captured a lot of market share to date and past investments by Rio in HIsmelt and BHP in HBI (hot briquetted iron) have not proved successful.”


Magnetite projects stand to benefit from the shifting sands   

There are two main types of minerals in iron ore deposits sold in the commercial seaborne iron ore market.

The first is hematite, which has high in-situ grades of high 50s to mid 60s in iron content, and is the cheapest to develop and operate at large scale, making it the mainstay of the current iron ore market.

The second is magnetite. While magnetite is generally of a substantially lower grade in the ground, it actually produces higher grades once processed and is a significant component of higher grade pellets and concentrates needed to fuel the direct reduced iron plants that will be key to low-emissions steelmaking.


BHP’s $2.6bn beneficiate lesson

Attempts to beneficiate DSO ore in the Pilbara by companies as substantial as BHP have largely gone awry.

“The only plant built to produce near-DR grade products was BHP’s Boodarie beneficiation plant built to feed its HBI operation in 1999,” Eames explains.

“This was designed to produce a high-grade (67.5% Fe) product from  a feed of export iron ore fines (which was already readily saleable with a plant head grade of 62.5% Fe), but the plant was low efficiency and recovered only a portion of the iron in feed. Ultimately BHP wrote off $2.6B on the HBI venture.

“Much of the Pilbara iron ore output is already the result of some processing to reduce clays and alumina, but even with this additional processing, the trend has been for overall product grades from Australia to decline as volumes have increased.

“This combination of mineralogy, history and results suggests that it is unlikely that the conventional Pilbara orebodies (Brockman, Marra Mamba and channel iron deposits) can be economically upgraded to high-grade iron products in significant volumes.”

“So the global steel industry faces a massive challenge – well over half of current global iron ore comes from the Pilbara, so if the traditional Pilbara operations are not able to supply the large volumes of higher-grade ores required, how will steel industry emissions be reduced?”

The answer to this conundrum, Eames suggests, is in the lower-grade processed ore bodies that supply a third of the world’s steel production.

“The likely answer to this conundrum is perhaps slightly counterintuitive. The best grades of iron ore are actually sourced from lower-grade in situ ore bodies,” Eames says.

“In other words, sometimes the purest iron ore can be made from relatively low-grade ore bodies that then use processing to separate the higher-grade iron ore and generate higher-grade products.

“About a third of the world’s steel is made from these processed iron orebodies, where lower-grade orebodies – often based on magnetite or mixed magnetite-hematite – are processed to higher-grade ores, instead of the more conventional hematite form of iron ore or ore bodies.

“This approach is well known and already widely used in places such as China, US and Canada.”

Could the Pilbara’s dump trucks be on a road to nowhere when the shift to high-grade iron ore kicks in? Pic: John W Banagan/Stone via Getty Images.


It’s not about resource grade

Finding a high-grade iron ore product is not about the in-ground resource, Eames says, but the geology and infrastructure at the deposit.

“Geology that is suitable for high-grade products is not actually about grade (as it is for direct shipping ores) but is about the ease of upgrading,” he insists.

“When you think about separating different minerals, what is important are really two factors. One is how closely the minerals are mixed together and, secondly, whether the particles can easily be separated.

“For a clean separation of a high-grade product, what you’re looking for is separate particles of iron ore that can be easily separated from the host rocks, which don’t have iron in them.”

Eames describes this analogy as iron filings in a medium-like sand, where you can easily use a magnet to separate out iron particles because they’re magnetic and easily separated from the silica sand.

“Magnetite orebodies are generally well suited to this kind of upgrading approach for two reasons,” he says. “One is that magnetite particles often have simple cleavage planes and readily separate into discrete particles when the ore is crushed.

“And the second property which is important is of course magnetite is magnetic and therefore can be readily separated with simple techniques using magnets.”

Then there is the infrastructure component, processing operations need access to low-cost power, water – the primary medium for upgrading – and cheap transport.


Magnetite a la Australia

According to BloombergNEF, the countries that could depose Australia as steelmakers shift their preferences to high grade iron ore products include Russia, Brazil, South Africa and India.

The Pilbara, in particular, faces infrastructure challenges due to difficulties across geology, power, water and transport requirements.

Not only is the resource largely hematite, but power is remotely generated off both the main Australian electricity grid and WA’s South West Interconnected System with expensive gas, while rail and port infrastructure is monopolised by a handful of iron ore giants, making entry to market especially difficult.

It was one issue China’s CITIC found at its Sino Iron project in WA, built in the early 2010s along with the Karara magnetite mine with the help of a royalty rebate from the Barnett State Government to reflect the high cost of entry.

“As an example, Sino Pacific had to build a 480MW gas-fired power station, a huge 51 gigalitre/year desalination plant and its own transhipment port,” Eames adds.

“It is perhaps no surprise that efforts to produce high-grade products in the Pilbara to date have faced challenges.”

Other locations have proven more fruitful.

Alongside locations in North America, South America, China and India, they have thrived in such diverse locations as Tasmania and South Australia, where there has been a long and successful history of magnetite operations.

Grange Resources has operated the Savage River mine successfully in Tasmania for 50 years, while SIMEC’s South Australian magnetite operations has been providing the feedstock for the nationally significant Whyalla Steelworks.

South Australia has emerged as an ideal location for modern iron ore mining, powered by the dense renewable penetration in its energy market. Pic: Manfred Gottschalk/Stone via Getty Images.


Investors can get in on the transition to high-grade

Eames says there are large iron ore deposits in Australia with the right combination of geology and infrastructure.

“Investors will find opportunities in a new generation of more sustainable, high grade iron ore operations that can assist Australia’s iron ore industry with the transition.”

“For investors, we are at the beginning of a substantial shift in the iron ore industry and there will be undoubtedly winners and losers over time as commodity and asset markets evolve.

“In the iron ore market, this transition would likely be accompanied by shifts to much higher premiums for higher-grade iron ore products (and potentially greater discounts for lower-grade ores),”he says.

“Existing iron ore businesses will be affected by shifting demand trends. And early investors in competitive resources that can deliver higher grade, sustainable iron ore products stand to benefit from the rewards.”

This article was developed in collaboration with Magnetite Mines, a Stockhead advertiser at the time of publishing.

This article does not constitute financial product advice. You should consider obtaining independent advice before making any financial decisions.