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Ferrous vs Non Ferrous Metals (What is the Difference?)


The difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals is that ferrous metals contain iron and non-ferrous metals do not.

This basic difference imparts distinctive properties on the two types of metals, which add to their own personal physical properties and determine the applications they are most suited for.

Non-ferrous metals have been used for thousands of years, with the discovery of copper in 5,000 BC marking the end of the Stone Age and the start of the Copper Age. The Bronze Age followed this, when copper was alloyed with tin. Alloys, which are a mixture of metal with an element to improve the properties or aesthetic, can be either ferrous or non-ferrous.

It was not until around 1,200 BC, when the Iron Age began, that the use of ferrous metals started and iron production began to become more commonplace.


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Properties of Ferrous Metals

Ferrous metals are any metal that contains iron, such as stainless steel. They are known for their tensile strength, which makes them ideal for architectural and structural uses such as the tallest skyscrapers, as well as bridges, railways and more.

Ferrous metals are also have magnetic properties, which is why you can use magnets to pin things to your refrigerator door, although their high carbon content means that many ferrous metals are prone to rusting. The exceptions to this are stainless steel, which doesn’t rust because of the chromium, and wrought iron which doesn’t rust due to the high pure iron content.

Examples and Uses of Ferrous Metals

Commonly used examples of ferrous metals include steel, stainless steel, carbon steel, cast iron and wrought iron:

1. Steel

A combination of iron and carbon, steel is renowned for its strength and machinability. It is widely used in construction, manufacturing and industrial metal fabrication.

2. Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is an alloy steel made with the addition of chromium to steel, which provides resistance against rust.

3. Carbon Steel

Carbon steel contains a high carbon content that is added to iron to create an exceptionally hard metal that is used for tools.

4. Cast Iron

Cast iron is a hard and wear resistant metal that is widely used for items including cookware, machine tools, engines, manhole covers and water pipes.

5. Wrought Iron

Unlike most other ferrous metals, wrought iron is able to resist corrosion and oxidation. It is typically used for fences, railings and gates.

Properties of Non Ferrous Metals

Non-ferrous metals don’t contain iron. They are lighter and more malleable than ferrous metals, making them ideal for applications where strength is required but weight is a consideration, such as with the aerospace industry.

Non-ferrous metals are not magnetic but do offer good resistance to corrosion and can conduct heat and electricity. They are used in for items including industrial piping, gutters, roofing and electrical applications.

Examples and Uses of Non Ferrous Metals

Commonly-used non-ferrous metals include aluminium, lead, silver, brass, gold, zinc, copper and tin:

1. Aluminium

Lightweight and easy to machine, shape and weld, aluminium is used for a range of applications from food cans and cookware to aeroplane parts and cars.

2. Copper

A good conductor of heat and electricity, copper is highly ductile and malleable. It is widely used for electrical wiring as well as in appliances and vehicles.

3. Lead

With a low melting point and low tensile strength, lead is used in electrical power cables, batteries, pipes, fuels, paint and for soldering.

4. Tin

Soft and malleable with a low tensile strength, tin is used as a coating to prevent steel from corroding.

5. Silver

Silver is used for a range of applications, including jewellery, cutlery, electrical contacts and in mirrors.

6. Brass

Brass is used for fixtures and fittings including taps, hooks, and doorknobs, as well as being used for light fittings and screws, among other uses.

7. Gold

Used for jewellery, gold also has applications including within the medical industry, in computers and also electronics.

8. Zinc

A medium strength metal with a low melting point, zinc is used to galvanise iron and steel to prevent rusting.

Properties of Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metals Comparison

Ferrous and non-ferrous metals typically have differing properties, although there are some exceptions to some of these general rules:

1. Resistance to Rust and Corrosion

Ferrous metals are vulnerable to rust when exposed to the elements due to their high carbon content. Exceptions to this rule include stainless steel and wrought iron, which resists rust because of its high iron content.

Non-ferrous metals have a naturally higher resistance to rust and corrosion because of the lack of iron content, making them good for applications including roofing and gutters.

2. Magnetic Properties

Most ferrous metals have magnetic properties.

Non-ferrous metals are not magnetic.

3. Weight

Non-ferrous metals are lighter than ferrous metals.

4. Cost

Non-ferrous metals tend to be more expensive than ferrous metals due to rarity, although this is not always the case.

5. Recycling

Both ferrous and non-ferrous metals can be recycled. Non-ferrous metals can be recycled repeatedly as they don’t lose chemical properties or degrade during recycling. By contrast, ferrous scrap metals need to be melted, purified and then compacted into solid blocks.


Is Ferrous Stronger than Non-Ferrous?

Although ferrous metals are generally seen as being stronger than non-ferrous metals, it is difficult to make general statements about the mechanical properties of different metals. For example, while many non-ferrous metals, such as gold, tin or lead, are soft, titanium is one of the hardest elements on Earth, as well as being non-ferrous.

Is Stainless Steel Ferrous or Non-Ferrous?

Stainless steel is a ferrous metal, as it contains iron.

Is Copper Ferrous or Non-Ferrous?

Copper is non-ferrous as it doesn’t contain iron.

Is Gold Ferrous or Non-Ferrous?

Gold is non-ferrous as it doesn’t contain iron.

Is Iron Ferrous or Non-Ferrous?

Iron is ferrous – in fact, the word ‘ferrous’ is derived from ‘ferrum,’ the Latin word for iron.

Is Steel Ferrous or Non-Ferrous?

Steel is a ferrous metal as it contains iron.

Related Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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