It may not be as glamorous as gold, as dangerous as plutonium, or as high tech as a titanium alloy, but iron, more than any other metal, has played a major role in the course of human history.

To learn more about the history of iron and how we can expect iron to play a role in the future, we took a look at an interesting infographic published by Visual Capitalist. The infographic provides an overview of iron as a resource.

Iron has many useful attributes, which are summarized well on this website. Although iron has been used since ancient times, it was the development of steel, an alloy of iron and carbon, that revolutionized human society. Steel has a much higher tensile strength than iron, allowing for the development of high-rise buildings, bridges, automobiles, and the industrial machinery that makes modern society possible.

The Geology of Iron

One of the key characteristics of iron is its ubiquity. In fact, iron is by far the most common metal on Earth – credit that to our planet’s core, a sphere the size of Mars that is 80% iron by weight. Given the fact that iron is so common, you might think we wouldn’t need to search for locations to profitably mine it.

Unfortunately, because the earth was molten when it formed, most of the dense iron sank to the core in a process known as differentiation. As a result, despite the variety of geologic processes that can bring iron to the surface, iron isn’t nearly as common in the crust as it is in the core – it only makes up 5% of the crust by weight.

Mining Iron

Mining that iron is a major industry: 95% of all metal mined per year is iron, and the iron market is the world second most valuable commodity market after oil! 80% of iron exports are sourced from just two countries, Australia and Brazil (China is the largest producer but doesn’t export much iron).

The infographic details high levels of iron consumption by China; this is no longer the case – the recent slowdown of the Chinese economy has led to decreased demand and an associated fall in global prices. In 2010, iron ore prices peaked at about 200 USD per ton; today, prices have fallen to only 67 USD per ton.

As detailed in this infographic, there are two common types of iron ore: magnetite ore and hematite ore.

Hematite ores are usually significantly more concentrated and can be shipped straight to the blast furnace, while magnetite requires more processing. Despite this fact, as the high grade hematite deposits we’ve traditionally relied on become more difficult to find, the cheaper costs of extracting magnetite ore are expected to offset the higher processing costs, resulting in a future increasingly dominated by magnetite ore extraction.