Ferrous & Non-Ferrous Metal: What’s the Difference?

Figuring out what metals to use when building can turn into a headscratcher. Too many times, individuals choose metals like copper or lead, only to find out that they aren’t compatible with the original metals that you may have selected.

But why is that? Not many people know that metals have different properties. They are often distinguished as ferrous and non-ferrous metals

In this article, we’ll be looking at the key differences between the two metal types. Continue reading to learn more.

Ferrous vs. Non-Ferrous Metals

The most straightforward way to describe the difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals is that the first contains iron, while the other does not. The differences don’t end there, though; both types of metals have their own distinctive applications and properties. There are four critical differences between non-ferrous and ferrous metals. Below we will review these four differences

Related: Most Popular Types of Metals & Their Uses

1.   Iron Content

The most significant difference between non-ferrous and ferrous metals is their iron content. Ferrous metals contain iron; the name comes from Ferrum, the Latin word for iron. Any ferrous metal will have some amount of iron in them; for example, stainless steel and cast iron are ferrous metals.

Non-ferrous metals, like aluminum, copper, and precious metals, do not contain any iron, and they can be raw, purified, or alloyed metal.

2.   Magnetism

You’ve probably noticed magnets only stick to certain types of metals; this is another property that differentiates non-ferrous and ferrous metals. Typically, ferrous metals are magnetic and non-ferrous metals are not; this is an easy way to identify and sort the two.

The reason why ferrous metals are magnetic is that iron is a polar molecule, essentially meaning that it is attracted to magnetic fields. The only time that non-ferrous metals are magnetic is if they are run through an electrical field, polarizing them.

3.   Oxidation

Another property of ferrous metals is that they can get oxidized, meaning that they can rust. Iron rusts because it is more likely to bond with oxygen. But, not all ferrous metals get rusty; some, like stainless steel, do not rust because they get combined with non-ferrous metals.

4.   Tensile Strength

Tensile strength refers to a material’s ability to undergo a lot of force without deforming or breaking due to a mix of flexibility and strength. Ferrous metals typically have a much higher tensile strength than non-ferrous metals; steel is known to be one of the toughest metals in the world.

Some non-ferrous metals, like titanium, have high tensile strengths, but very few can match the flexibility and strength of ferrous metals.

What Are Ferrous Metals?

Ferrous metals are composed of iron, and they have a high carbon composition. For a metal to get classified as ferrous, iron must be a significant part of its elemental composition; if it contains only a trace amount of iron, it probably won’t get classified as a ferrous one.

Related: South Austin Metals Steel Sales

Properties of Ferrous Metals

Ferrous metals have specific material properties that make them useful for many different engineering applications. Ferrous metals are known to have:

  • Durability
  • High tensile strength
  • Magnetic properties
  • Low resistance to corrosion
  • Recycling applications
  • Electrical conductivity

Those qualities give ferrous metals uses in the construction of buildings, engines, tools, etc.

Common ferrous metals include:

Most ferrous metals also contain a lot of carbonmaking them more susceptible to rust once they get exposed to moisture. However, wrought iron and stainless still have properties that allow them to resist rusting.

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel has more carbon in it compared to other metals, making it a lot harder than its counterparts. Because of its durability, it’s used in the manufacturing of tools, drills, and springs.

Cast Iron

Cast iron is made of a combination of silicon, carbon, and iron. It’s primarily used for making car engines, stovetops, and water pipes.

Alloy Steel

Alloy steel has elements such as chromium, nickel, and titanium, which give the metal more strength without increasing its weight. This type of steel is mainly used during construction or to make machine tools like drills.

Wrought Iron

Wrought iron composition is a little different compared to other ferrous metals. Due to its small amount of carbon, it can be considered as “pure” iron. However, it’s not as hard as other metals

Individuals typically use wrought iron for smaller purposes, like barbed wires, railings, and chains.

Related: Bronze vs. Brass & Copper [Complete Guide]

List of Ferrous Metals

what are ferrous metals?

●     Non-Alloy Steels

Non-alloy or carbon steel are some of the most popular ferrous metals. There are three types of non-alloy steels:

  • Low-carbon steel cost less and commonly get used for bending operations; they are extremely malleable. Examples of low-carbon steel are nut and bolt, medium-loaded details, and forgings.
  • Medium-carbon steel has more hardness and strength but less flexibility. Medium-carbon steel is popular in the automotive industry to create components like axels, shafts, and gears.
  • High-carbon steel is exceptionally strong and gets used in applications where resistance against wear is crucial, but it suffers from less ductility and weldability. High-carbon steel gets used in the creation of springs, blades, and all kinds of tools.

●     Chromium

Chromium is a ferrous metal that gets used to create stainless steel. Because it gets created with a top layer of oxidized chromium, rust typically isn’t a problem for this metal. Chromium features high tensile strength, toughness, hardness, and resistance to wear.

●     Manganese

Manganese comes with improved hardenability, wear resistance, and ductility. With manganese, the dangers of defect formation during creation is diminished, making it into a stable ferrous metal. This process also eliminates harmful iron sulfides from forming, which increases its strength further at high temperatures.

●     Nickel

Nickel is a ferrous metal that increases ductility and resistance to corrosion; it’s combined with chromium and other elements. Nickel and chromium combined form an exceptionally durable form of stainless steel.

●     Vanadium

The ferrous metal vanadium increases a material’s ductility. It also increases shock impact resistance, hardness, and strength. It is an extremely effective metal but can have negative impacts on material properties.

●     Cast Iron

Cast iron is a ferrous metal composed of iron and carbon. It has many great properties, like:

  • High castability
  • Cost-effectiveness
  • High compression strength
  • Wear resistance
  • Low melting point

What Are Non-Ferrous Metals?

Non-ferrous metals contain insignificant amounts of iron. Typically, a non-ferrous metal will contain less than 1% of iron by weight. Unlike ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals do not rust, and they typically aren’t magnetic.

Properties of Non-Ferrous Metals

Non-ferrous metals have properties that make them usable in ways that ferrous metals don’t work as well for. Non-ferrous metals are easy to fabricate, and they have:

  • High resistance to corrosion
  • Great thermal & electrical conductivity
  • Less mass (low density)
  • Colorful selections
  • Non-magnetic properties

List of Non-Ferrous Metals

what are non-ferrous metals?

●     Copper

Copper is a commonly used non-ferrous metal, and it has:

  • High thermal conductivity
  • High electrical conductivity
  • Great corrosion resistance
  • High ductility

●     Aluminum

Aluminum is an extremely important non-ferrous metal in engineering; it’s the go-to metal for constructing planes, vehicle parts, and boats. Properties of aluminum include:

  • Resistance to corrosion
  • Conducting heat and electricity
  • Lightweight and highly ductile
  • Hardens after cold working

●     Lead

Lead is the heaviest common non-ferrous metal. It doesn’t react easily to other substances, so it gets used for things like batteries, acid tanks, water pipes, and power cables. The properties of lead are:

  • Extremely heavy
  • Corrosion resistance
  • It doesn’t react with most chemicals
  • Malleable and soft

●    Tin

Everyone’s familiar with tin. If you’ve ever picked up canned foods in the grocery store, tin is the material they’re stored in. It’s soft, malleable, and has low tensile strength. 

Like zinc, tin is sometimes used to coat other steel to limit corrosion. You can also combine it with copper to create brass or bronze.

●     Zinc

Zinc on its own isn’t anything too special, but as an alloying element is has a wide range of purposes. Zinc gets used to galvanize steel in all different fields; this makes materials more durable and protects them from corrosion.

How can we take care of your metal needs? From fabrication to steel sales, South Austin Metals has the expertise to help you!

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