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What Is The Difference Between Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metal?

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Have you ever shopped around for metal? If the answer is yes, then you have likely considered the difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals. It is a question that often comes up in metal-related discussions. The answer is remarkably simple.

So, what is the difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals?

Ferrous metals and alloys contain iron, and non-ferrous metals do not, but that is not all. In fact, ferrous and non-ferrous metals have different physical characteristics, uses, and costs. It is important to understand these disparities when considering which type is most suitable for your next project, whether it is welding, engineering or hobbies using metals.  Now let’s break it down even further.

What is a ferrous metal?

Ferrous is a Latin phrase that roughly translates to a metal containing iron. If a metal only has a small amount of iron within its composite, it is not considered ferrous. Ferrous metals are characterised namely by their magnetism. Iron is magnetic which means ferrous metals are also magnetic. In addition to this, the iron lends itself to increased hardness and strength. That being said, metals are made up of many different alloying elements which means there can be differences in the way the metals present themselves and behave. 

Despite their differences, ferrous metals are all susceptible to rusting when in the presence of water and moisture as a result of the increased carbon content.

Uses of ferrous metals

As aforementioned, ferrous metals contain iron which increases the hardness and durability of the metal. For this reason, ferrous metals are used extensively in heavy-duty construction projects, including within skyscrapers, high rise buildings and suspension bridges. Industrial piping, railway tracks and shipping containers are also commonly manufactured from ferrous metals.

Ferrous metal examples

What is non-ferrous metal? 

In contrast to ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals contain little to no iron. This comes with a range of favourable benefits, including the fact they weigh less, are non-magnetic and are conductive of electricity and heat.  

The lack of iron in non-ferrous metals makes them much easier to reform without compromising the desirable properties of the metal itself. The malleability, conductivity, low weight and lack of magnetism has seen non-ferrous metals become more and more in demand, resulting in a higher price.

Uses of non-ferrous metals

Non-ferrous metals have long been a go-to material for a range of reasons throughout history, and they continue to have a prevalent use in society, even now. Their conductive properties make them a favourable choice for electrical cables, whilst the malleability of ferrous metals lends itself nicely to the production of tools and cutlery. On top of this, the low weight sees ferrous metals used frequently in engines and within the construction sector.

Non-ferrous metal examples

How to detect non-ferrous metals?

Non-ferrous metals are more supple and lightweight unlike their opposite counterpart; ferrous metal. They are useful for applications that require strength but when a lighter material is needed. Due to not having iron content they are more resistant to corrosion and are nonmagnetic. This means they can’t be detected with a metal detector.

Non-ferrous metals are used in: 

  • Aircrafts, planes, helicopters etc 
  • Tinned cans and other food containers made of metal 
  • Metal guttering on houses and other properties 
  • Hot and cold water pipes 
  • Construction and road signs 
  • Small electronics in computers and other devices 
  •  Wiring  

Non-ferrous metals include but not limited to; copper, brass, lead, and aluminium.

Properties of ferrous metals

The main examples of ferrous metals are cast iron and steel but not limited to. Here is a list of ferrous metals and their properties:

Steel

This is the best known metal. Steel is mostly made from iron and carbon. The mixture of carbon with iron is what makes this metal hard. Although there are other elements which then make up the properties to form alloy steel. There are versions which are simpler in nature such as cast iron which has more carbon steel. This tends to have more carbon added to it along with some small amounts of silicon.

Cast Iron

Cast iron is produced by melting the following raw elements: 

  • Limestone 
  • Coke 
  • Pig iron 

Cast iron is fragile yet tough. It is mostly described as being a metal of high levels of resistance. Cast iron is mostly used in engines and other car parts, along with different machine tools.

Iron Ore

To manufacture ferrous metals, limestone and coke must be melted in a blast furnace. This is quite different to the cast iron process.  

A blast furnace is used to remove all of the oxygen and foreign material from the limestone and coke. This is known as ‘’the process of reduction’’

Wrought Iron

Wrought iron is the purest iron out of all the ones we have listed so far. 

The process of wrought iron includes binding in a compound called pig iron in a puddling furnace. No, we do not mean edible pudding. The carbon is then removed and any other components are carefully separated so that what remains is pure iron as much as possible. 

Wrought iron is mostly used in decorative items, such as chains, furniture, and barbed wire 

Wrought iron is probably the most common of the irons that people are used to seeing.

Properties of non-ferrous metals

The main one is Aluminium. But can also include other metals such as copper, zinc, chromium, and lithium.  

Aluminium is a lightweight metal which can be formed easily. In its purest form it is soft and weak. When it is used with copper, magnesium and silicon or other metals, it becomes harder and stronger. This can then be employed in various applications. 

Aluminium occurs in the form of oxides. It has high electrical & thermal conductivity. Aluminium is nonmagnetic and is resistant to corrosion.  

It is cheap and a good conductor of electricity. This means it is mostly used for making electrical wires. As it is malleable in nature, it can be used to protect pure metals, this is done by using Aluminium foil as a coating. It uses included but not limited to furniture, railroad, trolleys cars, motor bodies and pistons. 

As the name suggests, aluminium alloys are largely made up of aluminium. Zinc, copper, silicon, copper, magnesium and manganese are other alloying elements. Aluminium alloys are commonly used in the form of bars, tubes, sheets and within various industries and structures. Check out our page on Aluminium.

Some Frequently asked questions: 

  1. Is aluminium a ferrous metal? 

Aluminium is nonferrous as it does not contain any iron.  

  1. Is steel a ferrous metal? 

Steel is a ferrous metal as it is mostly made from iron with carbon added in.   

  1. Is brass a ferrous or non-ferrous metal? 

Brass is a non -ferrous alloy as it does not contain iron and mostly consists of Copper and Zinc. 

  1. Is bronze a non-ferrous metal? 

Yes. Bronze is an alloy of metals, as it does not contain iron.

For more information on what metals are available with Rapid Metals or to place an order follow this link to our contact page. A member of our team will be happy to help with your enquiry.  

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