Steel is tough. And we’re not just talking about the metal itself here. Iron ore is hard to mine. It’s hard to crush. It’s hard to refine. Most of South Australia’s iron ore, however, is different. It’s better than usual. It’s called magnetite. Billions of tons of it are buried within our boundaries. And we don’t have to ship it all overseas. We have our own steel industry to transform.
SA knows it must do steel better.
“We accept and acknowledge that we’re part of an industry that’s got a very significant contribution to global warming,” says Theuns Victor, executive general manager of the Whyalla Steel Transformation. “We need to address that in how we invest in our equipment configuration for the future.”
It’s not like steel is going anywhere. Nothing can replace it as the structural skeleton of our white goods, cars, skyscrapers, ships, trains, aircraft - and rockets. Which is why South Australia’s rich iron deposits will remain a valuable asset well into the future.
But there’s no quick fix for the carbon problem. Every aspect of the steel production process must be reassessed.
“The question is, how do you address that with future investments?” Victor asks. “Those are processes we’re currently looking at and developing. The target is to be the first carbon-neutral steel producer in the world by 2030. It’s a very ambitious target, but GFG is not making any excuses for being bold and ambitious. This is how you change the world.” SA’s magnetite immediately lowers the bar.
“Premium grade iron-ore concentrates allow lower-carbon steelmaking technologies to be considered,” says SIMEC Mining general manager of technical and innovation Gavin Hobart. “That’s the vision we ultimately would like to drive to.”
Iron Knob and other deposits of iron-rich hematite in the Middleback Ranges have been mined for more than a century, including being used as the feed source for the Whyalla Steelworks. But deposits of this mineral are nearing the end of their useful life.
“South Australia is, however, very rich in magnetite, with more than 10 billion tons of this resource declared in various degrees of confidence across the state,” Hobart says.
It’s not all plain sailing though. Magnetite needs more processing than hematite. “But the product grades are superior to the hematite products, and make the iron and steelmaking process more efficient,” Hobart says.
And that’s because advances in technology can convert magnetite into the highest premium iron concentrate traded in the market – called direct-reduction concentrate. “This grade of iron ore allows alternate iron and steel making technologies to be considered with lower energy demands,” he says.
SA’s future, however, isn’t yet set in magnetite. Steel’s problem isn’t just the ore. It is transportation. It is water. It is also coal. New technology is tackling the water issue, Hobart says. “Global advances have been made in dry processing and separation of magnetite. These are being evaluated, as well as dry tailings solutions.”
But steel’s strength and durability are a direct result of the energy sunk into its production. Whatever the iron ore is, it must be refined. This needs intense heat. The pig iron must then be balanced with precise amounts of carbon, which also requires intense heat. Traditionally, that heat came from coal. And that’s no longer sustainable.
Victor says the best-case scenario is to transition the Whyalla Steelworks into a modern plant that converts magnetite ore into high-quality steel using low-carbon fuels. It’s a win, win, win scenario. But there are steep challenges ahead.
“We have to compete on a world stage, with the big modern steel facilities in China,” he says. “It’s impossible to compete with them with our equipment that, in some cases, is 55 years old. We have to turn this into a sustainable business that will be able to compete for the next 50 years and support the local community and the region, as well as the state economy.”
Momentum is building, however. One such move exploits another abundant SA resource – solar energy. “SIMEC Energy is building the Cultana Solar Farm just outside of Whyalla. It’s 280MW and it will be the largest single-phase build in Australia to this point,” says SIMEC Energy Australia chief executive officer Marc Barrington. “The work will go towards helping GFG’s GREENSTEEL. This is the way forward.”
Iron brought down the world’s first great civilisation. Ours is built on its back. But the metal’s importance is far greater than that.
Without iron, there would be no life. Without life, there would be no iron ore. Much of the ore being dug up in Australia was refined and concentrated by algae some 3700 million years ago. It was then crystalised through aeons of hydrothermal heat.
Once people discovered how to turn it into steel, iron became a democratising force.
It is everywhere. So kings and nobles no longer cornered the weapons market through the complex manufacture of bronze.
And it’s still the cheapest, most useful and readily available metal we have.
Mining makes wind power possible
Coal is used to build wind turbines. Windfarms generated 12,700GW hours of electricity across Australia in 2017 – enough to power more than 2 million homes. More than 5600MW of wind capacity is now connected to the grid, with wind generation accounting for around 5 per cent of Australia’s total electricity generation.
– Source: MCA
Since Year 10, Harry Parker has known he wanted a career in engineering: he just wasn’t sure which field to go into. Then an open day at University of Adelaide in Year 11 opened his eyes to petroleum engineering. “I like the fact it is industry-based so it’s different to going down the electrical or mechanical engineering route,” he says. “When I spoke to a few graduates at the open day, they said they enjoyed that aspect as well.”
Parker started his degree course at University of Adelaide earlier this year. “I’m enjoying every week of the course: it’s a bit different studying at home (due to coronavirus restrictions) but I still feel motivated to do it every day,” he says.
Part of that motivation comes from the pride
he feels in being a Playford Trust Scholarship recipient. “It keeps me focused on what I need to do over the next four years,” the 19-year-old says. “And, financially, it makes a huge difference: I’m using it to pay for course books and putting it towards my HECS debt, which will be easier to manage at the end of my studies.”
Parker is as yet undecided which career path he will follow upon graduation but hopes to be able to take advantage of any opportunities to work in different countries. “That’s part of what gained my interest in petroleum engineering,” he says. “I’m not particularly set on any country at this stage: just anywhere around the world would be pretty cool.”