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Iron was used extensively in this Melbourne bridge and buildings
Iron is the backbone of the world we’ve built around us, as it is alloyed with carbon to make steel. Steel is very strong - hence terms like ‘Man of Steel’ (Superman) or Iron Man competitions – and very useful because it can be further mixed with other metals to make a whole variety of ‘steel alloys’ which are long-lasting and able to be easily shaped into products from cars to pins, household appliances to buildings, bridges to railways, food cans to tools. In short, we rely on iron (as steel) to make almost everything we need for living in the 21stcentury!
Iron is unusual in that it is magnetic (if you dangle a piece it will turn to face north-south). Iron has the symbol Fe (from the Roman word Ferrum). Iron is a silver-grey metal. Iron is quite soft but when made into steel is very strong.
Iron malleable and ductile (can be beaten and drawn into a wire). Iron quickly corrodes or rusts (forms a red powder called iron oxide) when exposed to air and water. Iron has a high melting point (1535 oC).
Steel railways/ carriages/engines, ships, car frames, engine cylinders. Steel buildings, bridges (such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge), roofing, cladding, doors, fencing. Steel engines, pumps, cranes, workshop equipment(eg. cutting tools, drill bits). Steel wire fences, ships’ cables, staples, door screens, nuts & bolts. Steel food containers, storage tanks. Steel drill rods, casing, pipelines. Steel refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, cutlery, hospital equipment. Pure iron is needed for proper plant growth. Animals need iron for making energy and carrying blood around the body. Foods rich in iron include red meat and liver, egg yolks and leafy green vegetables. Iron was the first element to be recognised as essential for people. A doctor in 1681 successfully used iron to treat patients who were pale, lacking in energy and suffering from anaemia. Iron chloride is used in water treatment and purification. Iron filings are used in ‘sparklers’. Iron chloride is used to etch copper in the making of electrical printed circuits. Cast iron camp ovens and woks. Wrought iron outdoor furniture, porch railings and other decorative items.
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Iron isn’t usually found on its own - it is often combined with other elements in rocks such as oxygen. For example, haematite (from the Greek word meaning ‘blood-stone’) is a red ore of iron and is responsible for the red colour in our rocks and the deep red sands of the Australian deserts. Some of these rocks are more than 600 million years old! Australia has huge reserves of iron ore (mostly in the Pilbara region of Western Australia) and we supply 1/8th of the world’s iron ore needs.
Major iron ore mining regions of Australia
A geologist examines iron ore
To make steel, the iron-ore bearing rock is first blasted and dug out from large open-pit mines, then crushed, smelted (heated with other substances including carbon) in huge furnaces. It is then combined (alloyed) with metals like nickel, chromium, manganese or titanium. These alloys give steel special properties like electrical resistance, and resistance to wear, rust, impact, shock or expansion when heated.
The cooled steel is shaped and can be coated with tin, zinc or paint to help protect it from rusting, creating products such as Zincalume and Colorbond.
The earth’s magnetic field is due to the iron (and nickel) in its core, and a compass uses this property to locate north. Iron is one of the oldest metals known to humans. Palaeolithic Man used finely ground haematite as rouge! Around 4000 BC, the Egyptians and Sumerians first used iron from meteorites to make beads, ornaments, weapons and tools. During the Iron Age, around 1000 BC, the Hittites were the first to forge iron. They were able to heat it hot enough to melt it, then hammer it and cool it quickly to produce iron that was stronger than any metal that had been known before, including bronze. By the time of the Roman Empire, iron was being used for beds, gates, chariots, nails, saws, axes, spears, fishhooks and tools for sharpening. During the Middle Ages, with the introduction of the iron cannon and cannon ball, iron overtook copper and bronze as the most widely used metal. Iron was the first metal to be discovered in Australia, found by explorer Edward John Eyre in the Middleback Ranges in South Australia. In the late 19 th century the Industrial Revolution began, with wooden ships being replaced by steel, mass machinery production in factories, and the invention of the railroad. You could say humans entered the ‘Age of Steel’. Today we use 20 times more iron (in the form of steel) than all other metals put together! Steel is one of the world’s most recycled products, with about 60% of steel available for recycling going back into making new steel. The value of Australia’s iron ore exports is exceeded only by that of coal.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION • • • •
Fact Sheet: Iron, Minerals Council of Australia and Australian Geological Survey Organization, 1999 www.agso.gov.au/education/factsheet/ Understanding Steel, BHP Limited, 1996 Iron Ore, Minerals of Western Australia Series #1, The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA Inc.