COPPER, gold and uranium are stealing the limelight, but another metal is grabbing the attention of a growing number of South Australian mineral explorers.
Iron ore does not have the glamour of gold or the hype that surrounds uranium, but it could be the basis for as many as five new mines in SA over the next few years.
While not on the scale of producers in the Pilbara – Australia's iron ore powerhouse – SA's newcomers will potentially create hundreds of jobs at their mine sites, spend millions on infrastructure and services and are already attracting significant overseas investment to the state.
If all the projects are successful, at current production projections they would produce about 12 million tonnes of ore per year for export.
For decades, OneSteel's Whyalla operation was the only force in iron ore in SA.
Fortuitously for the industry, OneSteel has almost finished spending $385 million converting its operations from hematite to magnetite processing (two types of iron ore), and upgrading its port facilities to export hematite.
The new port, which uses barges to load 160,000-tonne, cape-size vessels 8km offshore, has extra capacity, which OneSteel and the Whyalla Economic Development Board are examining for use by other companies.
This could remove a key cost factor for some companies and turn borderline projects into viable ones.
Western Plains Resources is developing one of the most advanced projects.
It announced last month it planned to have a $110 million mine operating within a year, employing about 130 people for at least six years at its Peculiar Knob project.
The firm has completed a feasibility study on the proposed mine – which gave it the green light – and is expecting its mining lease to be granted in February of next year.
There is also the potential for a nearby deposit, Hawk's Nest, to be incorporated into the mining plan.
Taylor Collison supports the story, rating Western Plains a "buy" with an initial target price of $1.86 a share "and upside potential of $2.49 a share with the Hawk's Nest magnetite project included".
Western Plains is one company, along with Goldstream Mining, which is hoping to export its product via OneSteel's Whyalla port, subject to agreements being reached.
Goldstream is also not far from Coober Pedy. It is targeting copper and gold as well as magnetite and expects to have its mining lease granted this quarter.
The company is well advanced with its feasibility study on the project and is negotiating with five groups for possible funding of the project, the company's recent quarterly report says.
Goldstream would create up to 100 jobs with the workforce based in Coober Pedy.
Centrex Metals currently has two projects on the Eyre Peninsula, with strong demand from its Chinese partners encouraging the fast-tracking of its second deposit. The company's initial project, the Wilgerup deposit, is about 30km southeast of Lock.
Centrex already has contracts in place with two Chinese companies for 10 million tonnes of ore supplied over five years from the start of mining.
Managing director Gerard Anderson has called the project "a very simple mining proposition" which would only cost about $19 million to set up.
The firm hopes to have the project on-line by the second half of next year, creating about 60 jobs.
Centrex also has a deal with one of its Chinese partners to develop its Bungalow magnetite deposit near Cowell.
Under the agreement, Baotou Iron and Steel will spend up to $40 million to progress the deposit to the bankable feasibility study stage.
In return for its investment, Baotou will earn half of Bungalow's expected total annual production of 3 million tonnes of magnetite concentrate.
Ironclad Mining is one of the newer entrants, recently spun out of Trafford Resources to develop the Wilcherry Hill magnetite project north of Kimba. Trafford was targeting gold, but found enough iron ore to justify creating a new company.