The Difference Between Ferrous & Non-Ferrous Metals | Eclipse Magnetics

The Difference Between Ferrous & Non-Ferrous Metals

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

In this article, we'll explore ferrous and non-ferrous metals in more detail, including explaining the key differences between these two types of metal. 

Ferrous Vs Non-Ferrous

Two major categories of metals exist: ferrous metals and non-ferrous metals. It's a simple fact that ferrous metals contain iron, whereas non-ferrous metals do not. It's more complicated than that because ferrous and non-ferrous metals have different properties. For example, ferrous metals are magnetic, whereas most non-ferrous metals are not. Based on these properties, they are best suited to certain applications.

Here are the key differences between ferrous and non-ferrous metals. 

ferrous vs non-ferrous

Ferrous Metals

What is ferrous metal?

The term ferrous metal to any metal containing iron - from the Latin word for iron, 'ferrin'.

As a result of their iron content, ferrous metals are magnetic, strong, and hard. Therefore, these materials are frequently used for building houses, large-scale piping, industrial containers, construction and engineering applications. 

Ferrous metals also contain a high amount of carbon, which makes them prone to rust when exposed to moisture. There are two exceptions to this: stainless steel, with its high chromium content, and wrought iron, which contains high levels of pure iron. These ferrous metals are more resistant to rust, making them more suitable for applications exposed to water. 

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Types of Ferrous Metal

There are many different types of ferrous metals. Let's take a look at some of the most common types of ferrous metal.

Engineering steel: Usually iron; however, it can be made tougher, ductile, stronger, harder, and more durable by adding copper, vanadium, tungsten, and manganese. It can be used for dies, tools, construction and machining equipment.

Carbon steel: One of the most common ferrous metals with over 90% iron content. Besides structures and furniture, it can also be used in automotive components.

Cast iron: Contains more carbon than most other types. Due to the lack of other alloying elements besides iron and carbon, it is relatively inexpensive. The material can be used to manufacture cookware, gears, rods, and pins that are subject to wear, as well as mining equipment.

Wrought Iron: In comparison to cast iron, wrought iron has a relatively low carbon content. It has a high degree of elasticity and tensile strength, and is soft, ductile, and magnetic. It can be heated and reheated and shaped to a variety of shapes. Unlike most other ferrous metals, wrought iron resists corrosion and oxidation. As a result, nuts, bolts, handrails, outdoor stairs, fences, and gates can be made with this material.

Stainless steel: Made from 100% recyclable materials, with a high amount of chromium that makes it more corrosion resistant than carbon steel. This material can be used to make appliances, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, food-grade equipment, and knives.

Properties of ferrous metals

Ferrous metals such as iron and steel are commonly used across almost every industry thanks to their unique properties. Let's take a look at some of the key properties of ferrous metals. 

  • Magnetic - All ferrous metals contain iron. This makes them magnetic. If a metal is ferrous, it will also be magnetic, thanks to the natural magnetic properties of iron. 
  • Durable - Ferrous metals are extremely durable. This makes them suitable for use in industries such as construction and manufacturing. 
  • Prone to rust - Most ferrous metals are prone to rust. This is because they contain iron, which reacts with oxygen and water to form hydrated iron oxide - more commonly known as rust. The exceptions to this are stainless steel and wrought iron, which are resistant to rust thanks to their unique properties. 
  • Conductors - Iron is a conductor of electricity, so most ferrous metals will conduct an electric current. 
  • Recyclable - Ferrous metals can usually be recycled, making this type of metal a sustainable choice. 

Where are ferrous metals used?

As these metals are usually strong and durable, they can be used in construction and engineering. Ferrous metals are found in large structures, such as skyscrapers and bridges. Additionally, ferrous metals can be found in shipping containers, industrial piping, cars, railroad tracks, and domestic tools.

are ferrous metals magnetic

Are ferrous metals magnetic? 

Yes, ferrous metals are magnetic. This is because all ferrous metals contain iron, which is a magnetic element. So, if a metal is ferrous, it will also be magnetic. 

Non-Ferrous Metals

Now that we've taken a look at ferrous metals, let's explore non-ferrous metals in more detail. 

What does non-ferrous mean?

Metals that don't contain iron are called non-ferrous metals. The word 'non-ferrous' simply means that the metal does not contain any iron. Unlike ferrous metals, these alloys are malleable and lighter, making them particularly useful where strength must meet weight restrictions, such as in the aerospace industry. 

There are distinct properties in the material, which are primarily pure metals or alloys without any iron. In terms of magnetic properties, they are mostly non-magnetic - although there are some non-ferrous metals that are magnetic.

In addition to the nonferrous metals like aluminium, copper, lead, zinc, tin, precious metals like gold and silver are also included and used for aesthetic purposes. 

Non-ferrous metals contain no iron, which makes them more resistant to corrosion and rust, so many non-ferrous metals are suitable for piping, gutters, roofing, outdoor signs, and roofing. As well as being non-magnetic, they are critical for electronic and wiring applications.

Types of non-ferrous metal

Here are some of the most commonly used non-ferrous metals:

  • Aluminium: Light, strong, and easy to shape
  • Copper: An electrically conductive metal that is highly malleable
  • Lead: Heavy, soft, malleable metal; low melting point, low strength
  • Tin: Typically used to prevent corrosion on steel, tin is soft, malleable, and low tensile strength
  • Zinc: A low melting point metal with medium strength used in galvanising to prevent rusting of steel or iron
  • Brass: Primarily an alloy of copper and zinc. Depending on the amount of zinc or other elements added to the brass, the composition can change
  • Aluminium Alloys: An aluminium alloy is a chemical composition in which other elements are added to pure aluminium to improve its properties, primarily to make it stronger

Properties of non-ferrous metals

Let's take a look at some of the key properties of non-ferrous metals. 

  • Resistant to corrosion - As non-ferrous metals do not contain any iron, they cannot rust. 
  • Low density - Many non-ferrous metals have a low density, making them suitable for use in applications where weight in a concern, for example in the aerospace industry.
  • Non-magnetic - The majority of non-ferrous metals are non-magnetic, making them suitable for use in applications where magnetism is undesirable. 
  • Thermal conductivity - Many non-ferrous metals are good thermal conductors. 

Where are non-ferrous metals used?

The use of non-ferrous metals has been extensive throughout history, with copper and bronze credited for advancing civilisation during the stone age to around 1700 BCE, when people learned how to mine copper and tin to make bronze weapons. The non-ferrous metals of today are used to build things, make tools, electrical cables, vehicle engines, pipelines, containers, and even cutlery.

non ferrous metals


Frequently Asked Questions

Do ferrous metals rust? 

Yes, ferrous metals can rust if they are exposed to water. This is because the iron within the metal reacts with both water and oxygen, forming hydrated iron oxide - more commonly known as rust. 

Stainless steel and wrought iron are two types of ferrous metal which have been designed to resist rust. So, if an application which is subject to wet conditions requires a ferrous metal, it would usually be stainless steel or wrought iron that would be used. 

Do non-ferrous metals rust? 

No, non-ferrous metals cannot rust. This is because rust occurs when the iron within a metal reacts with both water and oxygen to form hydrated iron oxide - more commonly known as rust. If there is no iron present in the metal, rust cannot be formed. 

What do ferrous metals contain? 

Ferrous metals contain iron. In fact, the word 'ferrous' comes from the Latin word for iron - 'ferrin'. 

Is steel ferrous or non-ferrous? 

Steel is ferrous, as it contains iron. This means that steel is magnetic. Steel is often used in the manufacturing and construction industries, thanks to its high levels of stregnth and durability.

Is cast iron a ferrous metal? 

Yes, cast iron is a ferrous metal. This is because cast iron contains iron, like all ferrous metals. Cast iron is often used in manufacturing, construction, and automotive industries. 

Is brass ferrous or non-ferrous? 

Brass is non-ferrous. This means that brass does not contain any iron. 

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