Research and innovation is unearthing new tools and approaches for tackling current challenges and boosting viability and productivity, at a time when the plunging iron ore price is casting a shadow over the future of the industry. Anna Littleboy reports

Article from resourceful: Issue 7, June 2015

Australian iron ore producers are facing very challenging times and tough decisions in the wake of four years of declining iron ore prices and the recent plunge below US $50 a ton.

The profits and expansion possible during the mining boom that saw iron ore price rise over six years to $1.80 per ton in 2011 are clearly not possible in the current market.

Working to increase outputs is one way to increase returns. However this puts pressure on margins and on the long-term sustainability of the industry.

The current iron ore predicament begs questions such as: ‘is this the best time to sell large quantities of ore?’ or ‘should more be processed into niche or value-added steel products?’ or ‘should more be left in the ground to sell when the price is high?’.

Science, and a smarter approach to mineral resource development and innovation across the value chain can make an industry viable and sustainable where it otherwise is not. Survival in the current market almost demands such an approach.

Collectively, our aim is to gain the most value from our mineral reserves for our industry and nation, at least cost and environmental impact, for as long as we can.

Science and innovation can contribute to cost minimisation, to value adding opportunities and integrated approaches that assist smart decision making – and CSIRO and collaborators cover that entire spectrum.

Across the value chain from iron ore to steel we have some exciting work happening and breakthroughs being made, for example our:

Optical image analysis systems (including latest MINERAL4 software package) enables us to more readily characterise and evaluate ore resources – this allows for efficient targeting of ores and has great potential to save time, energy use and costs

Strategies for predicting beneficiation and downstream processing performance – includes work relevant to the range of lower grade iron ore resources now utilised, ways to reduce water usage, optimise sinter, pellets and lump for blast furnace performance - all vital for the successful marketing and acceptance of Australian ores

Impurity removal techniques for taking out alumina, silica and phosphorus from lower grade ores via processes such as heat treatment and leaching, reverse flotation and microbe induced flotation. This is also crucial for the reputation of Australian ores in the marketplace.

Green steel – is also a visionary integrated process that CSIRO and industry partners BlueScope Steel and Arrium took on to lower the greenhouse gas emissions of our steelmaking and rekindle the industry. The two main components of this work are:

Dry slag granulation – iron blast furnace technology that is now being commercially scaled-up in China (see article Global vision for ‘green steel') will produce a cement product out of waste slag while saving heat energy and making enormous reductions in water use and greenhouse emissions.

Renewable charcoal instead of coal and coke – CSIRO and partners found that a third to a half of coal and coke used for steelmaking could be replaced with designer biochar – a charcoal produced through pyrolysis of plant matter and trees from plantations or waste streams from agriculture, forestry or wood processing. This has the potential to vastly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the Australian steel industry, provide a renewable and sustainable source of blast furnace fuel and allow Australian steel to differentiate itself in the marketplace through its ‘carbon-light’ credentials.

Added to the above, some powerful technology and tools are available to support decision-making, process optimisation and environmental monitoring and social innovation.

In spite of the downturn in iron ore price, there is much going on to support a viable, and productive industry into the future.

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