What is a Non-Ferrous Metal?

If you were asked the definition of a non-ferrous metal, the answer may seem obvious: it’s a metal which contains no iron. And while that’s true, it might surprise you that the answer is not entirely correct! Non-ferrous metal is a sprawling category, which covers iron-free metals such as aluminum or copper. But a metal is also defined as “non-ferrous” when its chemical composition does not include a significant amount of iron. This means even an alloy with trace amounts of iron can be correctly identified as being made of non-ferrous metal. A ferrous metal will have iron as the first or second most-abundant element in its makeup. But if iron is present in a non-ferrous metal, it will typically be less than 1% of the metal’s overall composition.

So because the non-ferrous category covers so many different varieties of metal, it can be very difficult to identify common properties shared by them all. Some non-ferrous metals are very soft and ductile, while others are hard and brittle. One non-ferrous metal may be durable enough to weather freezing temperatures, but another is well-suited to withstand extremely high heat. However, there is one common denominator to be found amongst non-ferrous metals: they don’t rust. Since they contain very minimal to no iron, there’s little opportunity for the development of a significant amount of iron oxide. And that means the metal doesn’t show signs of rust.

However, it doesn’t mean non-ferrous metals are corrosion-free. In fact, some non-ferrous metals such as zinc are highly corrosive – much more so than iron itself! But because the term ‘rust’ only applies to the formation of iron oxide, non-ferrous metals technically do corrode but they don’t rust.

Common Non-Ferrous Metals
One of the most widely used non-ferrous metals, aluminum in its pure form is soft and not particularly strong. Once alloyed, it gains strength and durability while remaining relatively lightweight. These assets, along with its machinability, makes it very popular in manufacturing. Common applications for aluminum range from aircraft fuselage and cars, to drink cans and kitchen utensils.

Like aluminum, unalloyed copper is softer and less strong in comparison to carbon steel. One of its most desirable qualities is its high thermal and electrical conductivity, which is why pure copper is commonly found in wiring and high-end cookware. When alloyed with zinc, it forms another non-ferrous metal, brass. Brass is stronger than copper, while retaining a high degree of malleability. This makes it popular for fittings and castings in a variety of shapes. Copper can also be alloyed with tin to create bronze – again creating a stronger and harder metal than the original copper, with better durability. Given the toughness of bronze parts, it’s a popular choice to manufacture bearings, electrical connectors, and springs.

Zinc is a non-ferrous metal with a low melting point. As mentioned before, it is more likely to corrode than iron. However, the type of corrosion produced by zinc is beneficial: the zinc oxide which forms on the layer of the metal stops any further corrosion from reaching inside. For this reason, of the most common uses for zinc is in galvanizing other metals. The outer layer of zinc forms a protective coat on steel or iron to prevent rust.