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Heavy Metals: Definition, Properties, Uses, and Types

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
April 26, 2024
 16 min read
Mark Osterman, VP of Technical Sales and Pre-Sales Engineering
June 7, 2024
 3 min read

Heavy metals are a group of elements characterized by their high atomic weights and densities. These metals, including: lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium, possess distinctive properties such as toxicity and corrosion resistance. Their widespread use in various industrial processes, including manufacturing, mining, and has led to environmental concerns due to their persistence and potential health hazards.

This article will discuss heavy metals, their properties, uses, types, advantages, and disadvantages.

What Are Heavy Metals?

The term "heavy metal" has been traditionally used in environmental and scientific literature to refer to certain elements, typically transition metals, metalloids, and some non-metals, that are associated with contamination and potential toxicity. Alongside these harmful elements, heavy metals such as: iron, zinc, copper, and manganese are vital for various physiological functions in living organisms, albeit in small quantities. Although excessive exposure to these essential metals can be harmful, they serve crucial roles in cellular processes and enzyme activities. 

What Are Some of the Different Properties of Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals, traditionally classified based on their density or molar mass, possess various properties. Some of these properties include:

1. Density

Generally, high densities — often greater than 5 g/cm³ — are what characterize heavy metals. Mercury is an example of a poisonous heavy metal with a high density. It has a density of about 13.53 g/cm³ at room temperature. This is far higher than the density of lighter metals, such as lithium, which is just 0.534 g/cm³. Remember to handle mercury with care, as it is toxic and can cause serious health issues if not managed properly.

2. Electronegativity

Electronegativity describes how strongly atoms attract electrons to themselves, and heavy metals exhibit a wide range of electronegativity. For instance, radium has an electronegativity of 0.9, while that of gold is 2.54. These values can influence how heavy metals form compounds and interact with other elements.

3. Toxicity

Heavy metals can be highly toxic to biological systems. Metals like: mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic are particularly notorious for their potential to cause heavy metal poisoning when they accumulate in the body in excessive amounts. This may result in harm to the neurological system and other important organs.

4. Solubility

The potential toxicity of heavy metals such as lead (Pb), nickel (Ni), thorium (Tl), chromium (Cr), cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg), and thallium (Tl) poses serious threats to the environment-health. Living organisms can easily absorb them due to their high solubility in watery conditions. After being taken, these metals have the potential to build up in bodily tissues and biomagnify via food chains, endangering both human health and ecosystems. Thus, it is essential to regulate heavy metal pollution effectively to lessen its negative effects.

5. Bioaccumulation

Heavy metals exhibit a characteristic known as bioaccumulation, which is the accumulation of these substances in larger creatures as a result of their consumption of smaller ones higher up the food chain. This causes higher trophic levels to accumulate heavy metals over time. As an example, fish that are at the top of the ocean food chain and are predators, such as tuna, can collect large amounts of mercury. This event highlights the widespread threats that heavy metal contamination poses to human health and the ecosystem.

6. Oxidation States

The oxidation state of heavy metals significantly influences their toxicity and usefulness. For instance, hexavalent chromium (Cr^+6) is known for its extreme toxicity, posing serious environmental and health risks. It can cause damage to the liver, lungs, and stomach upon intake. On the other hand, trivalent chromium (Cr^+3) is much less toxic and is even an essential nutrient in small amounts. The difference in toxicity between various oxidation states is due to the way they interact with biological systems. For example, different oxidation states can affect the ability of metals to form complexes with organic molecules within living organisms, influencing their mobility, bioavailability, and the way they are processed by the body.

7. Catalytic Activity

The diverse oxidation states and complex formation capabilities of transition metals make them highly effective catalysts. By offering different paths and surfaces for reactions, they enable them to promote chemical reactions. In certain applications, arsenic compounds — while not elements — also function as catalysts by their distinct chemical characteristics.

8. Chemical Reactivity

Heavy metals exhibit varied chemical reactivity based on several factors. Transition metals, for instance, have partially filled d orbitals, allowing them to form positive ions during reactions. Their electron configurations are stable, which is crucial for their reactivity; typically, s electrons are removed before d or f electrons. The size of the nucleus also plays a role, affecting the metal's ability to attract and retain electrons, thus influencing reactivity. Generally, the more reactive a metal is, the easier it loses electrons to form cations. These properties are essential in understanding the behavior of heavy metals in different chemical contexts.

9. Metallic Properties

Heavy metals exhibit various metallic properties, including: conductivity, malleability, and ductility. These metals typically conduct electricity and heat due to the presence of delocalized electrons in their structure. Additionally, they possess the ability to be hammered into thin sheets (malleability) and stretched into wires (ductility), making them valuable in various industrial applications. However, their toxicity and environmental impact underscore the importance of responsible handling and disposal practices.

10. High Melting and Boiling Points

Heavy metals typically have high melting and boiling points due to strong metallic bonds and stable crystal structures. The well-established toxicity of lead affects several bodily systems, most notably the nervous system. It harms adults as well as has the potential to create serious developmental problems in children. Lead is no longer widely used in paint, plumbing, or gasoline products because of the health dangers involved.

11. Environmental Persistence

Environmental persistence is the tendency of a chemical substance to remain in the soil or water for a long time without being broken down or made unavailable to living organisms. Heavy metals do not break down into other, less harmful elements over time, so their potential hazards continue to pose risks for a long period until they can be sequestered or perhaps leached away. The long-term contamination of ecosystems and resulting bioaccumulation of heavy metals is what makes this group of elements such a problem.

Is the Toxicity of Heavy Metals a Universal Property Among All Types of Heavy Metals?

No, toxicity is not a universal property of all heavy metals. While many, such as mercury and lead, are toxic, others, like zinc and iron, are essential nutrients in small amounts. Toxicity varies with dose, exposure, and metal type.

What Are the Uses of Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals find extensive use across various industries due to their unique properties. For instance, lead is utilized in: batteries, radiation shielding, and ammunition. Mercury is employed in: thermometers, fluorescent lights, and dental amalgams. Tungsten is valued in: electrical contacts, X-ray tubes, and high-speed tool steels. Additionally, heavy metals like platinum, palladium, and rhodium serve as catalysts in chemical reactions.

What Are the Different Types of Heavy Metals?

The various types of heavy metals include:

1. Aluminum

Aluminum is considered a heavy metal because it exhibits several properties characteristic of heavy metals, despite its relatively low density compared to other heavy metals. It forms cations (Al^3+) in solution and can exhibit similar chemical reactivity to heavy metals in certain contexts, qualifying it as a heavy metal despite its lightweight nature. Aluminum is a lightweight, silvery-white metal that resists corrosion and has good electrical and heat conductivity. It finds extensive use in: packaging, building, and transportation, among other areas. The strength-to-weight ratio of aluminum makes it a valuable material for use in vehicle and aircraft construction. But compared to some other metals, it is not as strong and can be costly to produce. Cans made of aluminum are one example of a final product made from aluminum.

2. Bismuth

Bismuth, with its distinctive rhombohedral crystal structure and reddish hue, is valued for its low toxicity. It's utilized in medicine and cosmetics, and as a safer alternative to lead in free-machining alloys for plumbing. Notably, bismuth is the key ingredient in Pepto-Bismol®, offering relief for digestive issues. Its unique properties also make it suitable for various industrial applications, contributing to its versatility and safety in use.

3. Zinc

Zinc is a silvery-white metal that is often used as an alloying element — for example by combining it with copper to make brass. It is also used to coat (galvanize) steel to stop it from rusting. It is a trace dietary element that is vital to human health. Zinc can corrode in some situations, and is not as durable as other metals. Zinc is a metal with tensile strength that is less than half of mild carbon steel, making it unsuitable for load-bearing applications. Coins and batteries often contain zinc. 

4. Lead

Lead is a grayish or silvery-white soft, dense metal with a low melting point. It is used in batteries, radiation shielding, and as an additive in paints. Despite its usefulness, lead is toxic, and its use is being reduced for health reasons. 

5. Mercury

Mercury is used in thermometers, barometers, and other scientific equipment. At room temperature, mercury is a liquid. Other applications of mercury include fluorescent lighting and dental amalgam. Mercury's use is strictly regulated due to its extreme toxicity. It is used in the process of producing caustic soda and chlorine gas.

6. Copper

Copper is known for its excellent electrical and thermal conductivity. It is widely used in electrical wiring, plumbing, and the production of electronics. Copper is also antimicrobial and doesn’t corrode easily, making it ideal for use in marine environments. However, it is relatively expensive and can be replaced by cheaper alternatives in some applications.

7. Arsenic

Arsenic, a metalloid, has some of the properties of heavy metals. It finds application in pesticides, semiconductors, and wood preservatives. Steels are alloyed with it as well. However, arsenic is extremely poisonous, and is dangerous for the environment and human health. There are strict regulations regarding its use.

8. Chromium

Chromium is a shiny metal used for its high corrosion resistance and hardness. It is used as an alloying element in stainless steel, chrome-plated metals, and in dyes and pigments. Chromium is toxic in its hexavalent form and is a subject of environmental regulations. It’s introduced into alloys either as pure chromium or recycled from steel scraps.

9. Nickel

Nickel is a strong, ductile metal used to make some grades of stainless steel, coins, and rechargeable batteries. It’s valued for its resistance to corrosion and ability to withstand high temperatures. Some people may experience allergic reactions to nickel.

10. Cadmium

Cadmium is a soft, malleable, ductile, silvery-white metal that is resistant to corrosion and is used as protective plating on other metals. It is also used in batteries, especially nickel-cadmium batteries. In addition, it can be added to paints and coatings as a pigment due to its vibrant colors. Cadmium exposure can cause detrimental effects on the body, such as cancer and harm to the neurological, reproductive, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. As a result, its use is strictly controlled, particularly in materials and goods meant for young children, who are more likely to consume it by teething on toys or other objects. For example, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission forbids the selling of toys that have concentrations of heavy metals, such as cadmium, exceeding certain levels. An example of an end product using cadmium is rechargeable batteries.

11. Thallium

Thallium, with its silvery-white appearance, is prone to tarnishing yet finds diverse applications despite its toxicity. While historically utilized as a pesticide and rodenticide, its high density renders it invaluable in: optical lenses, infrared detectors, electronic devices, and pharmaceuticals. However, its toxic nature necessitates stringent management to mitigate environmental and health hazards. Proper handling and disposal protocols are crucial to prevent contamination and ensure safe utilization of thallium-based products. 

How To Choose Which Type of Heavy Metal To Use?

Choosing the right type of heavy metal for a specific application involves considering several factors. Here is a list of considerations to guide you through the selection process:

  1. Assess the environmental conditions the metal will be exposed to, such as temperature extremes, corrosive substances, or other elements.
  2. Decide whether the metal needs to be strong, flexible, or have other specific mechanical properties.
  3. Evaluate how much you are willing to spend, as some metals may be more expensive than others.
  4. Estimate the amount of metal required to complete your project.
  5. Look at the melting point, ease of machining, safety factors, space constraints, coefficient of thermal expansion, thermal and electrical conductivity, and density.
  6. Verify compatibility with other materials it will interact with.
  7. Ensure compliance with required regulatory standards.
  8. Check the availability of the metal. Some metals might be readily available, while others could have a limited supply.
  9. Consider the metal's recyclability and its overall environmental impact.

What Types of Heavy Metals Can Be Used in Metal 3D Printing?

Heavy metals commonly used for 3D printing include: copper, cadmium, and chromium. These materials are chosen for their strength and resistance to corrosion.

To learn more, see our full guide on Metal 3D Printing.

What Types of Heavy Metals Can Be Used in Embossing?

Heavy metals such as: platinum, copper, and gold are appropriate for embossing. These metals are perfect for crafting intricate, raised motifs because of their malleability.

To learn more, see our full guide on What is Embossing.

What Types of Heavy Metals Can Be Used in Laser Engraving?

In laser engraving, certain heavy metals are preferred due to their ability to absorb the laser light efficiently. For instance, lead is known to be easy to mark at high speed because it absorbs fiber laser light very efficiently.

To learn more, see our full guide on the Laser Engraving Process.

What Is the Advantage of Using Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals like cadmium, lead, mercury, arsenic, and chromium are often viewed negatively due to their toxicity, but they do have some advantages when used responsibly. For instance, cadmium can be used in batteries, pigments, and coatings due to its resistance to corrosion. Lead has applications in batteries, radiation shielding, and sometimes in construction. Mercury's unique properties make it useful in thermometers and dental amalgam. Arsenic is used in semiconductors and wood preservatives. Chromium is valued for its hardness and corrosion resistance, often used in stainless steel and metal plating.

What Is the Disadvantage of Using Heavy Metals?

Even though high density or atomic weight are common characteristics of heavy metals, not all of them are intrinsically hazardous. Still, some metals are known to pose a risk to human health and the environment, such as arsenic and mercury. Serious health problems can arise from exposure to heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. These could include organ failure, neurological deficits, and environmental deterioration that would jeopardize ecosystems and public health as a whole. It's critical to understand these dangers and exercise extreme caution when using and being exposed to heavy metals.

Do All Heavy Metals Pose a Significant Threat to Human Health?

No, not all heavy metals pose a significant threat to human health. Certain heavy metals, such as arsenic, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, and cadmium are well-known for their toxicity and health hazards, but other heavy metals, like iron, zinc, and copper, are necessary micronutrients that are safe in the right amounts for a variety of physiological processes.

Are Heavy Metals Naturally Occurring in the Environment?

Heavy metals are elements that occur naturally within the Earth's crust, presenting in diverse forms and concentrations, typically within minerals or bonded with other elements. They can also be artificially produced in laboratories. Natural phenomena like erosion, volcanic activity, and the weathering of minerals release these metals into the environment, making them bioavailable. Yet, human actions such as mining, industrial processes, and the utilization of metal-based products have markedly amplified their presence, resulting in heightened environmental pollution and greater exposure to these elements among humans.

What Distinguishes Heavy Metals From Other Types of Metals?

Heavy metals are distinguished from other types of metals primarily by their high atomic mass and densities. Additionally, they often exhibit unique properties such as toxicity and corrosion resistance, setting them apart from lighter metals like magnesium.

What Is the Difference Between a Transition Metal and a Heavy Metal?

The difference between transition metals and heavy metals lies in their position on the periodic table, their properties, and their uses. Transition metals are found in the d-block of the periodic table and include elements from groups 3 to 12. They are characterized by their ability to form compounds with variable oxidation states and their use as catalysts. Transition metals are generally hard and have high melting points. They are also known for forming colored compounds and are often paramagnetic. The term heavy metal is less scientifically defined and generally refers to metals with a high atomic weight or density. Heavy metals can include both transition metals (like mercury and lead) and non-transition metals (like arsenic). The term often carries negative connotations due to the environmental and health risks associated with some heavy metals.


This article presented heavy metals, explained each of them, and discussed their various applications. To learn more about heavy metals, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

  1. PEPTO-BISMOL is a registered trademark of the Procter & Gamble Company.
  2. Inconel® is a registered trademark of the Special Metals Corporation.


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Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.