Ferrous Metals vs. Nonferrous Metals...the Difference Matters!

April 29, 2019

While both ferrous and nonferrous metals have long been used in a large array of industries to create an even larger array of products, the differences between the two metals still aren’t widely understood. However, if you run a business that’s interested in recycling your scrap metal after, say, a remodeling project or replacing aged pipes or electrical systems (for example), it really helps to learn the difference between the two to figure out what types of scrap metal make good candidates for recycling when you’re finished.

In addition, if you’re ever asked the questions, “What are ferrous metals used for?” or “What are nonferrous metals used for?,” it would be a great asset to your company’s credibility to know these answers, at least if you deal with these metals in any of their shapes and forms. It also really helps to understand which industries use what metals (and for what reasons), even if your particular company or industry isn’t using one or the other.

But, before we dive into the difference between ferrous and nonferrous metals, let’s start by quickly reviewing what they have in common!

The Difference Between Ferrous and Nonferrous Metals: A High-Level Explanation

While both ferrous and nonferrous metals are used in a variety of common products and applications that we interact with every day (including the buildings we work in, the cars we use to get there, and the homes that we eventually return to), there are actually many distinct differences between the two. However, from a high-level, it’s actually quite easy to mark these distinctions: Ferrous metals contain iron, and nonferrous metals do not contain iron.

In truth, that’s as simple as it gets! Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to visually differentiate between the two, and that’s what really counts for the majority of people working with these metals. In fact, being able to identify and understand what ferrous metals should be used for a task in comparison to their nonferrous counterparts is what’s truly important.

However, cost and availability also play a vital role in these distinctions, as the basic ingredients of ferrous metals (i.e., minerals like carbon and iron) are plentiful, easily accessible, and comparatively cheap. The same cannot be said for nonferrous metals such as gold and silver, which are generally much rarer and harder to obtain. When you add in the fact that nonferrous metals have a much wider range of uses, then you can begin to see why these nonferrous metals are much more valuable (and also why they’re often referred to as “precious metals”).

Now, let’s break down the difference between ferrous and nonferrous metals even more by highlighting some of the most prominent examples of ferrous metal versus the most popular examples of nonferrous metals.

Applications & Examples of Ferrous Metal Alloys

All ferrous metals are alloys, which simply means they’re made up of a combination of several metals. Another factor linking all ferrous metals is that they all contain mostly iron, with varying amounts of other elements incorporated as well. However, it’s the iron found inside ferrous metals that gives them their magnetic quality, in turn making them useful for electrical or motor applications.

A 106 carbon steel ferrous metal pipe spool

Ferrous metals are also useful within the construction industry because of their durability. Skyscrapers and bridges, as well as industrial large-scale pipes, shipping containers, automobiles, and railroad tracks all rely on ferrous metals. The same is true for some of the most common household objects, such as knives, tools, and home hardware.

However, ferrous metals aren’t without some shortcomings. For example, their high carbon content often leads to easy rusting when ferrous metals are exposed to moisture or the elements, a problem that is not shared by their iron-less nonferrous counterparts.

With that high-level overview out of the way, let’s take a look at four of the most common examples of ferrous metal alloys.

Ferrous Metals List

Steel

Steel is a combination of iron and carbon, with the carbon being used to harden the iron. More specifically, steel is made by heating and melting iron ore in furnaces, with the steel then being poured into molds to form bars. These steel bars are widely used for construction and manufacturing.

Carbon Steel

As its name implies, carbon steel has a higher carbon composition than plain steel, making it even more durable. This makes it the ferrous metal of choice for various machine tools, and is frequently referred to as “structure steel.” This is also a staple in the construction industry, especially for tall skyscrapers and lengthy bridges that need extra strength to maintain their frameworks over long periods of time.

Cast Iron

This ferrous alloy is made up of iron, silicon, and carbon. This combination of materials gives cast iron its characteristically resistant finish that makes it perfect for use in everything from automobile engines to water pipes to stoves to utility hole covers.

Wrought Iron

Wrought iron contains such a small amount of carbon that it’s practically pure iron – but still contains enough to be considered an alloy. Wrought iron is typically used for things like gates, fences, chains, nails, barbed wire, and railings.

Applications & Examples of Nonferrous Metals

Due to their lightweight, coupled with their impressively high levels of durability and malleability, nonferrous metals are an appealing alternative to ferrous metals, especially within the manufacturing industry.

The lack of iron in nonferrous metals makes them more corrosion resistant than ferrous metals, which is why nonferrous metals are a prime choice for roofing projects, outdoor advertising signs, gutters, pipes, street signs, and virtually any other material or substance that is continuously exposed to the outdoor elements and harsh weather conditions. In addition, the lack of magnetism in nonferrous makes them suitable for a wide array of wiring applications.

With yet another high-level overview out of the way, we can now review four of the most common examples of nonferrous metals!

Nonferrous Metals List

Aluminum

Easily cast and forged, and also suitable for intense, high-temperature environments, aluminum is commonly used to build everything from aircraft materials and powerlines to food can parts and kitchen utensils.

Copper

This highly ductile nonferrous metal has a high conductivity rate for electricity and heat, which makes it ideal for use in the electrical industry where it’s frequently used as an effective conductor. It’s also frequently used for wiring, appliances, and vehicles, as well as sheet roofing and even to help make brass.

Lead

This soft, heavily malleable nonferrous metal features low melting point and also a low tensile strength. These traits help it withstand corrosion even more than most nonferrous metals, while also making it ideal for things like pipes, batteries, fuels, and even building construction, soldering, and electrical power cables.

Zinc

Featuring a low melting point, zinc can be machined quite easily. Zinc is a medium-strength steel as well, and the combination of these characteristics makes it perfect for use in galvanizing (i.e., applying a protective zinc coating to steel or iron to help fight off the accumulation of rust).

Want More Info or Insights on the Uses of Ferrous & Nonferrous Metals?

With over 30 years of experience utilizing metals both ferrous and nonferrous, the experts at Globe LLC are here to help guide you towards the right metal materials for your next fabrication project.

If you would like to learn more about the many applications of ferrous and nonferrous metals across a variety of industries, feel free to contact us today with any questions you might have!