While different types of metal can have vastly different properties, they all fall into two general groups: ferrous and non-ferrous. The key and easiest-to-remember difference between the two is that ferrous metals contain iron and non-ferrous metals do not. The history of how these metals have been used goes back to ancient times when the discovery of non-ferrous copper put an end to the Stone Age and then, thousands of years later around 1200 B.C.E., the expanding applications of ferrous metals brought the world into the Iron Age. Today, both ferrous and non-ferrous metals have numerous applications across nearly every industry.
In addition to containing iron, ferrous metals commonly share two other key properties—magnetism and a vulnerability to rust. They are often used in industrial applications. Here are some examples of ferrous metals:
Stainless steel is one of the strongest ferrous metals and can effectively resist heat and corrosion. It is extremely durable, easily repairable, and can outlast other types of steel.
Another durable metal within the ferrous family is wrought iron, an alloy that contains very little carbon and offers excellent fatigue strength. It is commonly used in chains and railings.
Containing more carbon than wrought iron, cast iron is a strong but brittle ferrous metal. It is often used in automotive parts, such as cylinder heads and gearboxes, as well as manhole covers.
Thanks to its carbon content, carbon steel is one of the hardest ferrous metals. It is used in machinery and power tools, including drill bits and saw blades.
The absence of iron in non-ferrous metals gives them a distinct advantage over their ferrous counterparts: They are less prone to rust and corrosion. Additionally, they are softer and can be more easily shaped. Because of this, they are often used in rain gutter systems, liquid-carrying pipes, and other applications where they’re exposed to moisture. Here are some examples of non-ferrous metals:
Aluminum not only resists corrosion and rust, but it is also lightweight. This makes it ideal for use in car and aircraft parts, as well as machinery and food cans.
Copper is a highly conductive non-ferrous metal and therefore has many applications in the electrical industry. It is also used in roofing, ball bearings, and sculptures.
Zinc has a low melting point and is often used to coat steel and iron to prevent these materials from corroding or rusting—a process called galvanizing.
Brass is made by combining copper and zinc. It can be commonly found in electrical fittings and sockets, hinges, locks, and plumbing.
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