June 2018

Iron ore – meeting market challenges

  • By Ralph Holmes, Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO; Iron Ore 2019 Conference Chair and Keith Vining, Research Group Leader, CSIRO; Iron Ore 2019 Conference Committee

An overview of key topics and developments in iron ore since 2017, and a look forward to AusIMM and CSIRO’s Iron Ore 2019 conference

As planning commences for the Iron Ore 2019 conference in Perth from 22-24 July 2019, now is an opportune time to review some of the key topics and issues that were discussed at the Iron Ore 2017 conference held last July, look at what has happened in the intervening period and finally, speculate on the topics that are likely to be discussed at the 2019 conference.

As outlined by A D Brent in his keynote address in the opening session at last year’s conference, the iron ore industry was going through a major transformation in July 2017. The industry was emerging from a decade of soaring Chinese demand for iron ore and entering a much more competitive world where:

  • supply exceeded demand and customers once again had choice
  • the supply/demand imbalance was likely to grow in the medium-term as projects continue to ramp up, which was coupled with slowing Chinese steel demand
  • higher extraction rates resulted in shorter mine lives, requiring more rapid exploration and delineation of new orebodies to sustain production levels
  • grades were declining as higher quality, easier-to-mine resources were diminishing, leading to the development of more problematic ores, often requiring beneficiation.

The Australian iron ore industry has clearly risen to these challenges, with major reductions in operating costs over recent years and the steady adoption and implementation of new technologies, including the progressive introduction of autonomous trucks and remote operation with trials of autonomous trains well-advanced.

At the 2017 conference there was a strong focus on the importance of mineralogy and petrology on iron ore processing characteristics (ie geometallurgy), the rationale being that you need to understand the detailed characteristics of an ore to optimise mining, blending, beneficiation and downstream processing operations. Examples of techniques being developed and refined for iron ores that were presented at Iron Ore 2017 include optical image analysis (A Poliakov et al), infrared spectroscopy (M Haest et al and J Carter et al), downhole nuclear magnetic resonance (TAJ Hopper et al) and pulsed neutron geochemical tools (P Jeanneau et al), as well as the use of X-ray computed tomography for studying the 3D internal structure of iron ore lump and sinter (B Godel et al). Development of these techniques for geometallurgical applications is continuing and updates are expected at Iron Ore 2019.

Another significant area at the 2017 conference was the beneficiation of lower grade ores that are now being developed to sustain production levels, including the more challenging magnetites. For example, a ground-breaking paper was presented on the dry processing of magnetite ores using the IMPTEC Super-fine Crusher and the Cyclomag Separator to radically reduce grinding costs and the need for process water (CG Kelsey et al). We expect to hear more about such developments at Iron Ore 2019. A paper was also presented on relocatable modular beneficiation plants (T Graham), which are currently attracting attention for the more economic exploitation of the smaller iron ore deposits spread across the Pilbara. The growing divergence between the spot prices for 62 per cent Fe and 58 per cent Fe ores has intensified the focus on beneficiating lower grade ores to take advantage of the higher price for premium grade ores, so this is expected to be a significant focus at Iron Ore 2019.

Recent failures of tailings dam walls in the mining industry have increased the focus on sound environmental management. At the 2017 conference, papers were presented on mine design to closure (A Kemp et al) and improving the efficiency of water spraying for airborne dust control (JM Roberts and PW Wypych). More on such topics is expected at Iron Ore 2019.

In conclusion, the iron ore industry continues to innovate and major changes have taken place in the sector to address the changing market environment and radically reduce operating costs. With these changes in mind, ‘Optimising Value’ has been selected as the theme for Iron Ore 2019 to capture the technical advancements that have been implemented or are under development to maximise the value of Australia’s iron ore resource base. Hence, it is anticipated that Iron Ore 2019 will provide an excellent opportunity to hear about the latest developments.

The call for abstracts is now open for Iron Ore 2019. Please submit abstracts not exceeding 300 words per paper in English to the Iron Ore 2019 speakers portal, available via ironore.ausimm.com. Deadline 17 September 2018.

This article is part of our June 2018 special feature on iron ore. Read more:

Iron ore spotlight

The importance of iron ore to Western Australia’s economy

How the ‘tyranny of distance’ affects the Australian economy


Image: Bahnfrend. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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