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How is Iron Refined from Ore?

Michael Anissimov
By
Updated Feb 01, 2024
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Iron ore is any rock that contains a usable quantity of iron. Common ore minerals include hematite, magnetite, limonite, and siderite, and these are frequently found together with assorted silicates. Although iron does not occur in its pure form in nature, some kinds of ore contain up to 70% iron atoms. Iron ore consists of oxygen and iron atoms bonded together into molecules. To create pure iron, one must deoxygenate the ore, leaving only iron atoms behind, which is the essence of the refining process.

To coax the oxygen atoms away from the ore requires heat and an alternate atomic partner for the oxygen to bond to. Carbon fills this role nicely, and is readily available in the form of everyday charcoal, or coke, a form of carbon made from coal. The carbon atoms bond with the oxygen in the ore to create carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, gases that escape out a chimney. Because iron ore typically contains silicates, which do not bond to the carbon, these remain in the iron after it is refined, creating wrought iron, a malleable and strong form of metal used by blacksmiths throughout history.

To create an even purer form of iron, known as pig iron, limestone must be added to the mix and the heat increased. This is done contemporarily in the silo-like structure known as a blast furnace. The calcium in limestone bonds with the silicates in the ore, creating a material called slag, which floats on top of the pure liquid iron. The iron is periodically drained into a mold from a port at the bottom of the blast furnace, where it cools. The pig iron can then be converted into wrought iron by mixing it with silicon, or processed further to create steel.

Steel is a form of iron mixed together with 0.5% - 1.5% carbon but no oxygen, silicates, or other impurities. This metal is much more difficult to work than wrought iron, but is greatly stronger. Iron can be mixed together with various other elements to create alloys with desired properties, such as lightness or resistance to rust (stainless steel).

Because iron is so common (composing 5% of the Earth's crust), strong, and relatively easy to process, it plays a very intimate role in human civilization. Roughly 98% of all ore shipped worldwide is used in the production of iron or steel. Surface deposits are abundantly available in most geographic areas. Ancient civilizations that reached the threshold level of technology required to smelt iron ore enjoyed decisive advantages over their competitors, whose bronze and copper weapons were no match for ironworks.

AllTheScience is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Discussion Comments

By anon144593 — On Jan 20, 2011

Extremely helpful. Thank you, wiseGeek!

By anon102446 — On Aug 07, 2010

This was a little helpful but like others, I need much more for my 18 page assignment, including what the properties of processed iron after it has been refined as well. Thanks anyway!

By anon92147 — On Jun 26, 2010

very helpful for my assignment. Thanks a lot.

By anon72209 — On Mar 22, 2010

This article was useful for my studies. It made me understand this lesson.

By anon53051 — On Nov 18, 2009

yeah some more info and hard facts would be nice but pretty good overall.

By anon47551 — On Oct 05, 2009

When there is silver, copper and gold in the iron ore does it stay in the iron or go into the slag?

By anon12062 — On Apr 29, 2008

It helped me a lot on my project and now I have a LOT of jot notes for my project.

By anon10838 — On Apr 03, 2008

Thank you! This helped me greatly with the Geology merit badge in Boy Scouts. I needed to explain how a resource that can be extracted from the Earth can be refined/processed, and this helped greatly. Not too hard to understand yet it provides enough material to be helpful. Thank you!

By anon5607 — On Dec 01, 2007

It was helpful but I needed more info on which refining process is used for iron, like smelting, electrolysis or displacement so I could use it for my school project.

By anon3188 — On Aug 16, 2007

I found this subject helpful for my school project but I need more information like what the properties of all the processed products of Iron Ore after it has been refined.

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology...

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