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Key Differences between Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metals

Every day, we are faced with a large number of various metals and alloys. But for a person not related to the metal industry, the difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals is invisible, although, in reality, these materials are significantly different from each other. And so, let’s look at the characteristics of ferrous and non-ferrous metals and find out how they differ.

Characteristics of ferrous metal alloys

In fact, it is impossible to find a pure metal in nature. All the metals that surround us – both ferrous and non-ferrous – are alloys. Ferrous metals are obtained by melting iron with carbon. This is the basis of the ferrous metals. And to improve their characteristics, the basic alloy is complemented with silicon, phosphorus, and other elements from the periodic table.

Ferrous metals include carbon steel, mild steel, stainless steel, wrought iron, and cast iron. These materials are characterized by high strength, durability, and the ability to withstand enormous loads. Thus, ferrous metals are used in the construction of high-rise buildings and bridges, in the automotive industry and the production of fastening devices and tools, for the installation of large-scale pipelines, etc. The magnetic properties of ferrous metal allow the use of this material in the production of engines and electrical appliances.

The main disadvantage of such metal products is their exposure to environmental factors – they can be deformed, rusted, and oxidized. However, ferrous metals can be used indoors, where these materials are protected from external influences.

Galvanizing metal products (covering with a layer of zinc-based alloy) allow changing the characteristics of ferrous metals and making them resistant to rust and corrosion. At the same time, the cost of the galvanized coil increases due to the higher reliability and durability.

Characteristics of non-ferrous metal alloys

Non-ferrous metals do not contain steel and iron. Such materials are more versatile in use and much more resistant to corrosion than ferrous metals. Moreover, non-ferrous materials are ductile, light-weight, and soft.

In science, there is a conditional classification of non-ferrous metals, according to which they differ in various characteristics of a particular group:

  • light metals (aluminum, titanium, magnesium);
  • heavy non-ferrous metals (copper, lead, zinc, tin, nickel);
  • noble metals (including platinum metals);
  • refractory metals;
  • scattered metals;
  • rare earth metals;
  • radioactive metals.

Electrical wiring, aircraft, jewelry, window frames, batteries, road signs, roofing materials, and millions of other products, items, and structures are made of non-ferrous metals and their compounds.

How to distinguish ferrous and non-ferrous metals

The difference in the structures of ferrous and non-ferrous metal is clearly visible under the microscope. If you need more accurate data on the percentage of metals in a particular alloy, it is necessary to conduct research in the laboratory. However, there are some easy ways to distinguish ferrous and non-ferrous metals without a microscope:

  1. Check magnetic properties. Since non-ferrous metals do not contain iron, they have no magnetic properties. This distinctive feature is used in electrics and electronics. Accordingly, the more iron in ferrous metal is – the higher its sensitivity to the magnet. The only exception is nickel. This is a non-ferrous metal, but the magnet is drawn to it in the same way as to iron-containing alloys.
  2. Pay attention to corrosion. Although non-ferrous metals can corrode in certain atmospheric conditions, you are unlikely to see traces of rust on the surface of a metal alloy with a high content of aluminum or copper. At the same time, rust on the surface of ferrous metals is not uncommon. However, this reasoning does not hold for stainless and galvanized steel. These materials are based on the same iron and carbon, but the high content of chromium and alloying additives make these metals special and resistant to corrosion.
  3. In conclusion, it stands to mention that ferrous and non-ferrous metals have important common characteristics – they serve for a long time and can be processed if necessary. In addition, in most cases, the characteristics of metals are preserved after processing. This allows the use of obsolete and defective devices, spare parts, and individual elements as recyclable materials in various industries. The reuse of metals gives an opportunity to treat natural resources more carefully and save on the mining of primary metals.