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bog iron, silvery white metallic element, symbol Fe, siderite, transition elements

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Iron, symbol Fe (Latin ferrum, ”iron”), magnetic, malleable, silvery white metallic element. The atomic number of iron is 26; iron is one of the transition elements of the periodic table.

Metallic iron was known and used for ornamental purposes and weapons in prehistoric ages; the earliest specimen still extant, a group of oxidized iron beads found in Egypt, dates from about 4000 bc. The archaeological term Iron Age properly applies only to the period when iron was used extensively for utilitarian purposes, as in tools, as well as for ornamentation. The beginnings of modern processing of iron can be traced back to central Europe in the mid-14th century bc.


Metallic iron occurs in the free state in only a few localities, notably western Greenland. It is found in meteorites, usually alloyed with nickel. In chemical compounds the metal is widely distributed and ranks fourth in abundance among all the elements in Earth's crust; next to aluminum it is the most abundant of all metals. The principal ore of iron is hematite, which is mined in the United States in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Other important ores are goethite, magnetite, siderite, and bog iron (limonite). Pyrite, the sulfide ore of iron, is not processed as an iron ore because it is too difficult to remove the sulfur. Small amounts of iron occur in combination in natural waters, in plants, and as a constituent of blood.


Pure iron, prepared by the electrolysis of ferrous sulfate solution, has limited use. Commercial iron invariably contains small amounts of carbon and other impurities that alter its physical properties, which are considerably improved by the further addition of carbon and other alloying elements.

By far the greatest amount of iron is used in processed forms, such as wrought iron, cast iron, and steel. Commercially pure iron is used for the production of galvanized sheet metal and of electromagnets. Iron compounds are employed for medicinal purposes in the treatment of anemia, when the amount of hemoglobin or the number of red blood corpuscles in the blood is lowered. Iron is also used in tonics.


In the early 1990s, annual United States production of iron ore exceeded 56 million metric tons. In the same period, world production was nearly 920 million metric tons. The estimated worth of usable ore produced in 1990 in the United States was more than $1.7 billion.

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