The world’s biggest iron ore mines

Brazil hosts five of the world’s biggest iron ore mines, while the remaining six are located in Australia and Africa. Mining-technology.com profiles the world’s biggest iron ore mining operations based on recent estimates of proven and probable reserves.


Sishen mine

Carajas, Brazil

The Vale-owned Carajas mine in the state of Para in Northern Brazil is the world's biggest iron ore mine holding 7.27 billion tonnes of proven and probable reserves as of December 2012.

Carajas is an open pit mining operation targeting the Serra Norte, Serra Sul, and the Serra Leste iron ore deposits in the Carajás District. The mine contained an estimated 4.84 billion tonnes of iron ore (grading 66.7% Fe) in proven reserves and 2.43 billion tonnes of iron ore (66.6% Fe) in probable reserves as of 2012. It produced 106.7 million tonnes iron ore in 2012.

Vale is implementing a $19.6bn expansion project known as Carajás Serra Sul S11D Iron project, which involves the development of a new mine called Serra Sul in the Carajas mining complex. The new mine is expected to commence production in 2016 and reach its peak production capacity of 90 million tonnes of iron ore per year in 2018.

The mining life of Carajas is believed to be extendible up to 2065.

Samarco Alegria, Brazil

"The mine contained 2.97 billion tonnes of iron ore in proven and probable reserves as of December 2012."

The world's second biggest iron ore mine, Samarco Alegria is located in the state of Minas Gerais in south-east Brazil. The mine contained 2.97 billion tonnes of iron ore in proven and probable reserves as of December 2012.

Samarco Alegria is an open pit mining operation consisting of two active pits, Alegria South and Alegria North, which have been operational since 2000. Samarco, a 50-50 joint venture between BHP Billiton and Vale, owns and operates the mine.

The mine was estimated to hold 1.89 billion tonnes of proven iron ore reserve (grading 40.2% Fe) and 1.08 billion tonnes of probable iron ore reserve (grading 38.9% Fe) by the end of 2012. Production in 2012 was 21.8 million tonnes and the life of the mine is projected to continue up to 2053.

Minas Itabiritos, Brazil

Vale's Minas Itabiritos mining site in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, hosts the world's third biggest iron ore mining operation. The proven and probable ore reserves of Minas Itabirito, which comprises four mines, Segredo, Joao Pereira, Sapecado, and Galinheiro, were 2.78 billion tonnes at the end of 2012.

Joao Pereira, containing 670.9 million tonnes (41.2% Fe) of proven and 340 million tonnes (40.9% Fe) of probable reserves, is the biggest among the Minas Itabiritos mines. Galinheiro is the second biggest holding 563.1 million tonnes (45.4%Fe) of iron ore in proven and 410.5 million tonnes (43.8% Fe) of probable reserves.

Sapecado and Galinheiro open pits have been in operation since 1948, whereas the Segredo and Joao Pereira open pits have been operational since 2003. Iron ore production from Minas Itabiritos during 2012 totalled 31.8 million tonnes. The estimated mine life of Minas Itabiritos is up to 2047.

Vargem Grande, Brazil

Vale-operated Vargem Grande mine site also located in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, contained 2.53 billion tonnes of proven and probable iron ore reserves as of 2012-end making it the world's fourth biggest iron ore mining operation. The Vargem Grande site comprises three open-pits namely Tamandua, Capitao do Mato, and Aboboras.

The Capitao do Mato pit holds 238.1 million tonnes (52%Fe) of proven and 960 million tonnes (45.4% Fe) of probable iron ore reserve, is the biggest among the four Vargem Grande pits. Aboboras, containing 924.6 million tonnes of iron ore (40.8% Fe) in proven and probable reserves and is the most recent pit after starting operations in 2003.

The total iron ore production from Vargem Grande in 2012 was 22.6 million tonnes. Tamandua, with an output of iron ore 9.7 million tonnes, was the biggest producing mine during the year. The mine life of Vargem Grande is extendible up to 2058.

Zanaga, Republic of Congo

"Production in stage-1 is expected to be 14 million tonnes of iron ore per year."

Zanaga is an open pit iron ore mine under development in the Lekoumou region of Southern Congo. It is estimated to contain 2.5 billion tonnes of iron ore (34% Fe) in probable reserves making it the world's fifth biggest iron ore mine.

The Zanaga project is being developed in two phases by a joint venture of Glencore Xstrata (51%) and the Zanaga Iron Ore Company (49%). The feasibility study for the project is scheduled for completion in the second quarter of 2014.

Production in stage-1 is expected to be 14 million tonnes of iron ore per year, including up to two million tonnes direct shipping ore (DSO). Stage-2 will expand the annual production capacity to 30 million tonnes per annum. The estimated mine life of Zanaga is 30 years.

Simandou, Guinea

The world's sixth biggest iron ore mine, Simandou is currently under construction in southeast Guinea, Africa. The Simandou mine contains 1.84 billion tonnes of iron ore (65.5% Fe) as of 2012 estimates. First production from the mine is expected in 2015.

Rio Tinto, with 50.4% stake in the Simandou integrated iron ore project, is developing the mine in partnership with Aluminium Corporation of China (CHALCO) and the International Finance Corporation, which respectively hold a 44.6% and a 5% interest in the project.

The Simandou iron ore operation will consist of open pit mines located at Pic de Fon and Oueleba, a railway, and a port. The project received more than $3bn investment by the end of 2013 and is expected to produce up to 95 million tonnes per annum of iron ore per annum over the mine's projected life of at least 30 years.

Hamersley, Australia

"The mine site, comprising Rio Tinto's ten fully owned open pit mines, was estimated to contain 1.72 billion tonnes of proven and probable iron ore reserves at the end of 2012."

The Hamersley Basin, located about 1,100km north of Perth in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, hosts the world's seventh biggest iron ore mining operation. The mine site, comprising Rio Tinto's ten fully owned open pit mines, was estimated to contain 1.72 billion tonnes of proven and probable iron ore reserves at the end of 2012.

The Hamersley mines cover the Brockman, Marra Mamba and Pisoliten iron ore deposits in the region. The Brockman 4 mine holding 561 million tonnes of iron ore reserves (62% Fe) is the biggest Hamersley Basin mine followed by Western Turner Syncline, Marandoo, Yandicoogina, and Nammuldi.

Rio Tinto also operates four other mines namely Channar, Eastern Range, Hope Downs-1 and Hope Downs-4 in the Pilbara region in joint venture partnership with other companies. The company's wholly owned mines in the Hamersley Basin produced 133.29 million tonnes of iron ore in 2013, compared with 126.63 million tonnes in 2012.

Chichester Hub, Australia

The Chichester Hub, also located in Western Australia's Pilbara region, approximately 263km south of Port Hedland, is the world's eighth biggest iron ore mine containing 1.51 billion tonnes of proven and probable iron ore reserves (57.6% Fe) as of June 2013. The mine is operated by the world's fourth biggest iron ore producer Fortescue Metals Group (FMG).

The Chichester Hub comprises two open-pit iron ore mines in the Chichester Ranges, called Cloudbreak and Christmas Creek. Mining activities at Cloudbreak started in mid 2008, while Christmas Creek, located 50km east of Cloudbreak, became operational one year later.

The Christmas Creek mine has higher reserves than Cloudbreak mine and is producing 50 million tonnes per annum of iron ore following two expansions in 2011 and 2012. The total production of the Chichester Hub is approximately 90 million tonnes per annum.

Minas-Rio, Brazil

"The project is being developed in phases with an estimated investment of $8.8bn."

With 1.45bt of probable iron ore reserves (38.76% Fe) estimated as of 31 December 2012, Anglo American's wholly-owned Minas-Rio iron ore mine, under construction in the state of Minas Gerais in south-eastern Brazil, is the ninth biggest iron ore mine in the world.

Minas-Rio will be an open-pit mine exploiting iron ore deposits located in the mountain ranges of Serra do Sapo and Itapanhoacanga. The project is being developed in phases with an estimated investment of $8.8bn.

The mine was originally scheduled to commence production the end of 2013, but construction delays and cost overruns have pushed its start-up to the end of 2014. Minas-Rio is expected to produce up to 29.8 million tonnes per annum of iron ore in its first phase of operation.

Karara, Australia

The Karara mine located about 220km east of Geraldton in Western Australia holds 955 million tonnes of iron ore (36.4% Fe) and is the tenth biggest iron ore mine in the world. The mine was officially opened in April 2013 and is expected to produce more than 30 million tonnes per annum of magnetite concentrate for in excess of 30 years.

The mine was developed by Karara Mining Limited (KML), a joint venture between the Western Australia-based iron ore producer Gindalbie Metals, Chinese steel producer Anshan Iron and Steel Group Corporation (Ansteel), which is the life of mine off-taker for all Karara production.

Construction of the Karara mine began towards the end of 2009 and the first direct shipping of iron ore from the mine began in March 2011. The shipping of haematite and magnetite concentrate from Karara began in March 2011 and January 2013 respectively.

Sishen, South Africa

"The Sishen mine holds 918.9 million tonnes of proven and probable iron ore reserves (59.2% Fe), making it the world's 11th biggest iron ore mine."

The Sishen mine, located near the mining town Kathu in South Africa's Northern Cape Province, holds 918.9 million tonnes of proven and probable iron ore reserves (59.2% Fe), making it the world's 11th biggest iron ore mine.

Sishen is the biggest among the three mines owned and operated in South Africa by Kumba Iron Ore Limited (Kumba) in which Anglo American holds 69.7% interest. Operational since 1947, it is also one of the world's biggest open pit mines. The proven ore reserves of the mine as of December 2012 stood at 642.9 million tonnes(59.4% Fe).

The mine produced 30.9 million tonnes of iron ore in 2013, compared to 33.7 million tonnes in the previous year. Several expansion projects including Sishen Lower Grade projects, SEP1B and the Sishen DMS concentrate project are in pipeline to extend the mine's life further from the currently estimated 18 years.

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