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Difference Between Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metals

What is the difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals?

The primary difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals is the presence of iron within ferrous metals, whereas non-ferrous metals do not include iron (or enough to be considered ferrous). Ferrous metals are also magnetic while non-ferrous metals are not; and other notable differences include non-ferrous metals being rarer, more expensive and more resistant to corrosion and rusting than ferrous metals.

Ferrous Metals

What is a ferrous metal?

The word “ferrous” comes from the Latin word “ferrum” and is the source of its chemical symbol “Fe”.

A metal which sits inside the ferrous category contains iron, with this making up a relatively large percentage of its composition.

Ferrous metals have magnetic properties, are typically heavier than non-ferrous, because of a high carbon content are more susceptible to rusting and often requiring a protective finish such as galvanizing and/or powder coating if going into harsher environments.

Types of ferrous metals and their uses

Type of Ferrous Metal



High-carbon steel

Has a carbon content between 0.60-2.0 wt.% (weight percentage) and a manganese content of 0.30-0.90 wt.%. Of all the carbon steels it has the lowest ductility (ability to be plastically deformed without fracture) and largest amount of hardness/toughness and are very wear resistant due to being hardened and tempered usually.

High-carbon steel such as tool steel are used for making tool parts like drills and screwdrivers, and for dies which are used in press brakes for stamping sheet metal. High-carbon steel is also used in applications where wear characteristics and higher strengths are needed like wire-ropes, bridge suspension cables and heavy coiled springs.

Medium-carbon steel

Medium carbon steels contain a carbon content between 0.30-0.60 wt.% and manganese content between 0.60-1.65%. In addition to the carbon content, the steel can be heat treated and quenched to further improve the mechanical properties of the steel, increasing their toughness, and improving its durability.

This kind of steel are regularly used for applications which require high-tensile strength and ductility like for structural steel applications such as steel beams; within shafts and gearing for axle shafts, crankshafts, and gearing plates; pressurised structures like tanks and water heaters; within rail, such as for railway wheels and tracks.

Low-carbon steel

Low carbon steel contains a carbon content of between 0.05-0.30 wt.%. It is one of the most common grades of steel and due to its low carbon content is more ductile and weldable than other steel types and is also less susceptible to corrosion.

Low carbon steels like the highly common mild steel are used for a range of applications including automobile parts, architectural metalwork, fencing, street furniture, machinery parts, cooking utensils and as it meets strict seismic and wind requirements, is used in construction for steel frame buildings.

Cast iron

Cast iron is an alloy which consists of between 2.0-4.0 wt.% carbon, 1.0-3.0 wt.% silicone and other minor elements. It can be further enhanced if alloyed with manganese, molybdenum, titanium, nickel, cerium, vanadium, and copper before it is cast. The degree to which the cast iron is alloyed and heat and cooled can give a wide variety of properties relating to different grades of cast iron; falling under four categories, white cast, grey cast, malleable and ductile.

Grey cast iron is the grade most used as it is one of the cheapest types to manufacture and provides good ductility, tensile strength and impact resistance, among other benefits and is often used in pumps, stove parts, tractor parts, weights and machinery bases. White cast iron is used in applications where ductility is not required and abrasion resistance is of importance like with pipe fittings, cement mixers, crusher liners and pump impellers. Malleable cast iron is used for hand tools, farm equipment and electrical fittings due to its good tensile strength and ductility; ductile cast iron is more ductile than white or grey cast irons and can withstand thermal cycling, therefore is often used in vehicle gears, suspension components, brakes and valves pumps and hydraulic parts.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is a family of iron-based alloys and have, when compared to other materials like mild steel, a higher – corrosion resistance, cryogenic toughness, ductility, strength, hardness, durability, work hardening rate and is becoming more and more popular due to it being more aesthetically pleasing, environmentally friendly and requiring less maintenance. One of its main characteristics is it contains a minimum chromium content of 10.5%. There are five types of stainless steel made up of Austenitic, Ferritic, Duplex, Martensitic and Precipitation Hardening.

There are varying benefits to stainless steel which lends itself to its wide range uses. It is used in transport for automotive parts like exhaust grills and trims, and shipping containers, road tankers and to transport chemicals and food due; in medical technology as stainless steel is preferred in clean environments as it does not easily corrode and is easily cleaned such as for surgical and dental instruments, MRI scanners and even in pins and plates for repairing broken bones; in construction due to its strength, recyclability and aesthetics, being used for handrails, architectural metalwork, backsplashes and countertops; within Aerospace for engine and exhaust components, key superstructure joints and landing gear components due to its ability to withstand extreme temperatures, improved durability of and high tensile strengths which are capable of absorbing significant impact stresses.

Non-Ferrous Metals

What is a non-ferrous metal?

Non-ferrous metals are metals that do not contain any, or an important enough to be noticed, amount of iron.

Typically, non-ferrous metals are lighter than ferrous metals; they are non-magnetic, provide higher conductivity and resistance to corrosion, and are generally more expensive.

Types of non-ferrous metals and their uses

Type of Non-Ferrous Metal




Aluminium is often referred to as the “miracle” metal because of its chemical and physical properties, where it is said without it, aviation would not have advanced anywhere near as quickly as it has. Aluminium has a low specific weight which is around a third of that to iron, is highly resistant to various forms of corrosion, is a good thermal/electrical conductor, highly reflective of light and heat, increased tensile strength at low temperatures to steel, is malleable, durable, ductile and odourless, and is 100% recyclable.

Aluminium is used in a wide range of manufacturing and commercial applications, with some of the most common uses being power lines due to the conductivity to weight ratio being better than copper; window frames, refrigerators and air conditioners; range of transportation (where it is said 27% of all aluminium is consumed) because of its strength to weight ratio including aircraft used in the shell and other components such as in the seating, trains to cut down friction resistance and within the automotive industry due to the drive to reduce co2 emissions by increasing fuel efficiency (due to its weight benefits).


Copper is a reddish-gold metal which is ductile, malleable and is regarded for its high electric and thermal conductivity. Other sought-after properties found within copper include its corrosion resistance, strength, ability to alloy with other metals and its antibacterial properties, having been registered by the US Environmental Protection Agency as the first solid antimicrobial material.

Copper was the first metal to be worked by people, traditionally being used for coins. Today, most copper is used in construction; primarily within electrical and plumbing equipment such as wiring, piping and roofing. In attempts to curb the number of bacterial infections spreading in hospitals, copper has been evaluated for use on touch surfaces such as door handles, bathroom fixtures and railings.


Brass is a soft, low friction metal made primarily from copper and zinc – typically with a 67% copper and 33% zinc split. Lead can also be added to improve the machineability of the brass. Brass often has a bright gold appearance, depending on the copper/zinc split this can change with more copper yielding a rosy tone and more zinc yielding a silvery colour. Brass is highly malleable, has a relatively low melting point, conducts heat well, is antibacterial, corrosion resistant and easy to cast.

Brass is commonly used within applications which are mechanical, decorative and within the medical industry. Due to its aesthetic value such as its colour ranging from silver to rose and light gold, and antibacterial properties, it is regularly used for bathroom fixtures and fittings and door handles. Other applications include nuts, bolts, threaded parts, injectors, shell casings for rifles, bullets and instruments like trumpets, trombones, tubas and French horns.

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