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What is Iron? - Ore & Explanation

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  • 0:01 What Is Iron?
  • 1:05 Iron Ore
  • 2:23 Iron Mines
  • 2:45 World Production
  • 3:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Charles Spencer

Charles teaches college courses in geology and environmental science, and holds a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies (geology and physics).

Iron. It has an age, a horse and a man named after it. But what is iron, where does it come from and how do we get it? In this lesson, you will learn about this useful metal.

What Is Iron?

Iron is a metallic element that is very chemically reactive, particularly when it interacts with oxygen. That's why iron metal rusts, and why your hemoglobin carries oxygen. Iron is one of the most common elements on Earth and in space.

Iron atoms contain 26 protons in their nuclei. The chemical symbol for iron, Fe, comes from its Latin name, ferrum. It is a soft, brittle metal in its pure form, but is strengthened by impurities such as carbon that are added to it to make steel, for which over 98% of the iron ore mined today is used.

All of the iron atoms in the universe formed in the cores of stars during the final stages of fusion and then launched into space by stellar explosions. Iron is the single most common element composing our planet, although most of it by mass is found far below the surface in the Earth's core.

Iron is the fourth-most abundant element in the Earth's crust, after silicon, oxygen and aluminum. It is present in nearly every rock of the crust and mantle as a chemical component of hundreds of different minerals.

Iron Ore

While abundant, iron is rarely found as a pure metal. Some meteorites contain elemental iron. Most of that is thought to be from the metallic core of a disintegrated planet that once occupied the asteroid belt. But nearly all of the iron on Earth has reacted chemically with oxygen or water to produce iron-bearing minerals. Any rock that contains sufficient amounts of iron to be mined economically, or at a profit, is referred to as iron ore.

The most common iron ore minerals are iron oxides and hydrated iron oxides, which are formed by reactions in water. The most important iron ores are the iron oxide minerals called hematite and magnetite. While many other minerals contain iron and can be mined - such as the hydrated ore minerals limonite and goethite, and the iron carbonate mineral siderite - the higher concentration of iron in magnetite and hematite make them the two preferred ore minerals.

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