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Monday, July 13, 2009

Port Hedland, Western Australia

Port Hedland harbour

Loading the ship

The Pilbara supplies 34% of the world's sea-bourne iron ore trade. It starts off as red earth, from the earth comes iron ore and from the iron ore comes something the world can't do without - steel. 98% of mined iron ore is used to make steel. So it's likely that your car, your washing machine and even your kitchen sink was born in the Pilbara in Western Australia.

The demand for iron ore strongly depends on Chinese steel production. Iron ore shipments from Port Hedland slipped slightly in June 2009 to 13.02 million tonnes from 13.09 million the previous months, figures show.

BHP Billiton Iron Ore is one of the world's leading suppliers of iron ore and has about 2000 employees and 5000 contractors. They have six mining operations in the Pilbara area including the biggest single pit, open cut ore mine in the world - the massive Mount Whaleback mine at Newman. The ore here is of exceptionally high quality, containing up to 68 per cent iron.

BHP Billiton uses the open cut method of mining. Holes are drilled into the pit floor and explosives inserted to break up the solid rock, then the excavators scoop up the huge boulders, load them onto trucks and take them to the primary crusher. The crusher breaks them down into lumps about the size of a football. It's then taken to a secondary crusher where it's broken down into grapefruit size lumps. From there, it's sent to stockpiles, ready for loading onto the trains.

These trains are mind blowing, some up to 3.7 kilometres long. Six 6000 hp locomotives are spaced evenly along the train and together they pull a gross weight of 26,000 tonnes of ore 426 kilometres from the mine site at Newman to BHP's processing plant in Port Hedland. This takes about 8 hours. The other track line runs between the Port Hedland and the Yarrie mine. Twelve loaded and twelve unloaded trains runs every day of the year.

Finally the iron ore is loaded onto ships for export to Japan, Europe, China and South Korea.