As hot as the blast furnaces required to produce steel, China's ever-expanding economy continues to fuel a seemingly insatiable demand for one of the building blocks of the modern world: iron ore.
As a result, iron ore has once again been catapulted into the spotlight with prices surging to robust levels.
With China representing approximately 63% of the market, and India's needs nipping at China's heels, iron ore supplies can't keep up with demand. Especially since these emerging superpowers have limited domestic supplies of iron.
Rajiv Chail, a metals and mining research analyst with Toronto-based Cormark Securities Inc., says the strong iron ore prices we're seeing today - along with increased demand - have spurred a surge in new development projects in emerging iron ore-rich countries, including Ukraine.
In a recent research report entitled "Strike while the Iron is Hot," Chail forecasts a buoyant market ahead for iron ore in the medium term (next two to three years) once there is greater economic stability in Europe. This should be underpinned by a projected 6%-8% growth in steel production, most of which will be made up by China.
One company that is well-positioned to capitalize on all that need is Toronto-based Black Iron Inc. (TSX:BKI), an iron ore exploration and development company with projects in Ukraine.
Its Shymanivske development project near the city of Krivoy Rog contains 345 million tonnes of measured and indicated resources, grading 32% iron, and 469 million tonnes in the inferred category grading 31% iron.
KrivBass is one of the largest iron ore districts in the world and is the principal centre in Ukraine for mining and metallurgy, where 42% of the country's ore reserves are concentrated. In fact, the Shymanivske project is surrounded by seven iron ore mines, which contribute towards steel production being Ukraine's most vibrant industry.
The company's primary focus for 2011 is to further increase its resource size and to complete a scoping study (a very preliminary blueprint for a mine), with results expected late this year.
Meanwhile, Chail says Black Iron is "an attractive takeover candidate given its strong infrastructure, large resource and potentially robust economics."
"The most logical buyers would be Arcelor Mittal, Metinvest or even Ferroexpo, each with commanding positions in Ukraine," he adds.
However, the Chinese are also very active in the mergers and acquisitions marketplace in order to ensure a long-term supply of iron. Since 2001, Chinese companies, including state-owned powerhouses, have directly invested in excess of $12 billion in iron ore projects and signed $82 billion in offtake agreements (deals where the Chinese invest in the development of mines in return for future long-term production contracts at discounted rates).
Chail believes that Black Iron's potential to produce 7-10 million tonnes of iron pellet production per annum (beginning in 2016), coupled with the Shymanivske project's easy access to a nearby major railway line, makes for a prospectively cost-effective mining operation.
Black Iron's vice president of corporate development, Aaron Wolfe, says that being so close to a transcontinental railway system is a major strategic and competitive advantage, which is a key reason why the investment industry is endorsing his company.
"We're just two kilometers from Ukraine's state-owned rail system. Once on that rail, we can access four ports on the Black Sea at a distance of only 140-320 kilometers," he says.
Another key value driver comes in the form of the Shymanivske project's close proximity to key steel-making markets such as Russia, Turkey and West Europe (Germany, Austria, Italy etc.), according to Chail.
Wolfe adds that Black Iron benefits from other key dynamics that support the prospect of the Shymanivske project becoming one of the least expensive iron ore mines in the world to operate.
"For instance, we have access to a significant pool of skilled labor only 35 kilometers from our project site," he says. "This skilled labor force has experience in iron and steel markets and is one-tenth the hourly cost of its counterpart in Canada, but with comparable skill levels."
Maxim Sytchev, a managing director of research at the Alberta and Toronto based investment dealer, AltaCorp Capital, also views Black Iron as a company that offers low-cost exposure to future iron prices.
"We view the implied commodity pricing in BKI shares as providing an attractive entry point for investors seeking iron ore (and hence global steel production) leverage, " he says in another recent research report.
"Given the context, investing in BKI shares is a levered bet on China's long-term growth profile," he adds.
It cannot be overstated that China's emergence as the world's biggest steel producer has impacted the iron ore market more than any other commodity. Since 2000, steel production in China has increased more than five-fold, reports Cormark Securities' Chail.
But it's not all rosy for this commodity-hungry emerging superpower. China has a domestic disadvantage. Its supply of iron ore typically comes from underground mines which are low in grade and high in processing costs.
As time goes on, the grades of iron ore being mined in China are decreasing. This results in higher costs and a heightened need to import more lower-cost iron ore. All of this is good news for producers in Ukraine, which mines some of the world's least pricey iron ore.
In addition to developing Shymanivske, Black Iron has an exploration permit for the nearby Zeleniske project. A Sept. 8, 2011 news release indicated encouraging drill results with the intersection of thick iron bands in each hole and grades exceeding 32% iron.
Traditionally, iron ore has been a well-explored resource in Ukraine but has been under-exploited because of historic Soviet policy. Specifically, Ukraine's mineral assets were considered strategically vulnerable due to their close proximity to NATO countries. So they were mostly left un-mined.
Black Iron is aiming to change the course of that history while forging its own bright future. It's one that hopes to capitalize on low development and production costs. Also working in the company's favor is the assurance that the burgeoning need for steel in the emerging BRIC superpowers of Brazil, Russia, India and China will continue to burn bright for many years to come.
Indeed, the investment industry seems to agree that Black Iron is primed to benefit considerably from a mining industry super cycle that is far from played out.
"This trend is unstoppable (barring social unrest) and will drive commodity pricing in an upward long-term direction," according to the AltaCorp Capital report.