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Difference Between Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metals

Ferrous and Non-Ferrous metals are constantly used in our daily lives, but you may not know the difference between the two. Keep reading to find out why it's important to know which is which.

 |  3 min read

Humans have been using different types of metals for thousands of years and our expertise with and understanding of these metals has greatly increased over time. We know the atomic makeup of the metal elements found on the periodic table and which of those combine to make common metal alloys that we use today. One characteristic that we use to differentiate metals is whether or not they contain iron. This is categorized as ferrous (containing iron) or non-ferrous (not containing iron). In this blog, we will discuss the similarities and differences between ferrous and non-ferrous metals.

What Are Ferrous Metals?

Simply put, ferrous metals contain some amount of iron. In fact, the very word "ferrous" comes from the Latin word, "ferrum," which means "contains iron." Also of note, the periodic symbol for iron is Fe. As you can imagine, there are many different kinds of ferrous metals, including iron and steel. This includes variations such as cast iron, wrought iron, stainless steel, carbon steel, and so on.

What Are Non-Ferrous Metals?

Non-ferrous metals are those metals that contain no iron, with aluminum being the most common. Other non-ferrous metals and metal alloys are bronze, brass, copper, tin, silver, gold and platinum.

We rely on non-ferrous metals very heavily in different ways. Because aluminum is so lightweight, for example, we use it to build aircraft. Another great example is copper. It is both ductile and highly malleable, which makes it ideal for pipes, bearings, sheet roofing, and so much more.

The Differences Between Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metals

We have already covered the primary difference between these metals. Concisely put, ferrous metals contain iron and non-ferrous metals do not.

However, it is worth noting that different types of metals can have similar characteristics, too. Depending on your project requirements, you may rely on either ferrous or non-ferrous metals for the special properties they bring to the table. It's important to understand what these different properties are and how they factor into your project or application. Keep reading to learn more about key differentiators!

Magnetic Properties

Another major distinction between these types of metals is that most ferrous metals are magnetic whereas non-ferrous metals are  NOT magnetic. And this is one of the reasons that we rely on ferrous metals so much for our different needs.

For example, these magnetic properties make ferrous metals invaluable for our different motorized and electrical appliances. We also need them for simple magnets. Next time you use a magnet to put a reminder on a metal surface at work, keep in mind that it is a ferrous metal that is making that happen. Check out how the U.S. Army uses ferrous metals in their trade show booths.

You don't always need metal with magnetic properties. This is why we use non-ferrous metals for various wiring and electrical application needs.

Resistance Properties

One of the biggest concerns about any project is how well it will resist things like rust and corrosion. These concerns are even more important if your project is going to be located outdoors or exposed to the elements for a prolonged period of time.

Which metal should you rely on to fight off rust and corrosion? Generally speaking, non-ferrous metals offer better resistance because they have no iron. It's no coincidence that so many of our gutters and roofs rely on non-ferrous metals! One extraordinary example of using non-ferrous metals for an outdoor structure is the Tampa Museum of Art, which used over 4,000 panels of custom Aluminum Perforated Metal to clad the exterior of the building.

Two exceptions to the resistance rules are stainless steel and wrought iron. These ferrous alloys actually contain enough iron to ward off rust very effectively. Other ferrous metals, though, have just enough iron to make themselves more vulnerable to rust and corrosion.

Weight and Cost

The final factors you need to be concerned about for your project are weight and cost. So, where do these metals land when we compare them?

Generally speaking, ferrous metals are heavier than non-ferrous metals. This is probably not surprising as the iron content makes these metals much heavier.

In terms of cost, non-ferrous metals are typically more expensive than ferrous metals. Why? Supply and demand: not only is there less non-ferrous metal available, but the demand for it is generally higher than the demand for ferrous metal.

Your Next Move

Now you know the important differences between ferrous and non-ferrous metals. You may be asking, where find the metals you need in stock and ready to ship?

McNICHOLS is the leading supplier of Specialty Metals in the U.S., including nearly all of the metals mentioned above. We have 19 locations nationwide to serve you and invite you to shop our products today! We specialize in what we like to call "Hole Products" (metal and fiberglass products with holes in them). To discover how we can bring your next project to life, contact us today!

Difference Between Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metals
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