The Xometry app works best with JavaScript enabled!
Our SolutionsIndustriesResourcesXometry EnterpriseHow Xometry WorksBecome a Supplier
Additive Manufacturing

3D Printing Service

Metal 3D Printing Service

Solutions For Every Industry
ResourcesMaterialsNon-Ferrous Metals: Definition, Properties, Use, and Types
Nickel-aluminum bronze bushing. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Alexei A65

Non-Ferrous Metals: Definition, Properties, Use, and Types

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
April 12, 2024
 17 min read
RECENT STORIES
Mark Osterman, VP of Technical Sales and Pre-Sales Engineering
June 7, 2024
 3 min read

Non-ferrous metals are a very generalized classification of metallic elements that are not iron or alloys that contain iron as their primary constituent. This encompasses a massively diverse range of metals with distinct and overlapping properties.

These metals are exploited across all industries and product areas, valued variously for their conductivity, malleability, aesthetics, chemical stability, resilience, and recyclability, contributing to their widespread use in modern technology and infrastructure.

This article will delve into non-ferrous metals, including their properties, uses, and types.

What Is a Non-Ferrous Metal?

Non-ferrous metals are a class of elemental metals and alloys that lack iron as a major constituent in their composition. Non-ferrous metals exhibit a variety of divergent physical and chemical properties. They are highly versatile and valuable in a wide range of applications—from bearings to scaffolding, from food utensils to aircraft structures and engine parts. 

What Are the Different Properties of Non-Ferrous Metals?

Non-ferrous metals offer a startlingly diverse range of properties. These properties are discussed below:

1. Light Weight

Lower density is a prominent (but far from universal) property among non-ferrous metals, facilitating their exploitation in weight-critical roles. Lower densities result in reduced weight for the same part (in which strength is not a primary concern).

This is particularly advantageous in aerospace, handheld/carried equipment, and automotive. Non-ferrous metals like aluminum and titanium are renowned for their elevated strength-to-weight ratios. They enable the production of light/strong components without compromising serviceability or durability. This greatly enhances fuel efficiency in transportation and facilitates easier handling and installation.

2. Conductivity

The most commonly exploited non-ferrous metals encompass excellent electrical and thermal conductivities combined with relatively low cost. They are irreplaceable in electrical power, electronics, and heat transfer/management applications.

Various non-ferrous metals possess the highest levels of thermal conductivity. They enable effective heat transfer in applications such as: heat exchangers, spacecraft radiant coolers, and cooking utensils.

3. Biocompatibility

Some non-ferrous metals demonstrate excellent levels of biocompatibility, making them suitable for medical and healthcare applications. Titanium and certain of its alloys, gold, platinum, and others exhibit biocompatible properties. They are well-tolerated by living tissues and can be safely implanted within the body without causing adverse reactions. Others, such as beryllium and lead, are highly toxic.

Biocompatibility is an absolute necessity for implanted medical devices for orthopedics, dental implants, and cardiovascular devices such as stents, in which materials must interact minimally with living tissues.

4. Corrosion Resistance

Non-ferrous metals commonly offer good to outstanding corrosion resistance. They are highly desirable for applications in which exposure to moisture, chemicals, or harsh environments is a concern. Aluminum, copper, and titanium, as significant components in alloys or their pure state, naturally form impermeable protective oxide layers. These act as self-healing barriers against progressive corrosion.

Corrosion-resistant non-ferrous metals are widely applied in industries requiring high-performance materials that can withstand corrosive agents without compromising structural integrity. Sensitivities vary considerably, so the material selection is a delicate and, in many cases, difficult balance.

5. Recyclability

Non-ferrous metals are typically highly recyclable, offering significant environmental and economic benefits. In particular, they can be relatively easy to identify and sort, to avoid contamination of material streams with inappropriate materials.

Unlike ferrous metals, which degrade during recycling by oxidation, non-ferrous metals can be recycled indefinitely without losing significant mass or performance. Recycling requires less energy than purification from ores and reduces the demand for damaging, primary extraction, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and conserving natural resources. As a result, recycling initiatives for non-ferrous metals are actively promoted and supported by governments, industries, and environmental organizations worldwide.

6. Heat Conductivity

Some non-ferrous metals exhibit good to excellent thermal conductivity, making them valuable for various applications in which heat transfer is a core function. Copper, aluminum, and their alloys are particularly renowned for their high thermal conductivity compared to ferrous metals. This enhances efficient heat dissipation and distribution, making them suitable for: heat exchangers, cooking utensils, radiant elements, and thermal-management systems. Their superior heat conductivity enhances energy efficiency, reduces operational costs, and improves overall performance in diverse industrial and domestic settings.

7. Malleability and Ductility

Non-ferrous metals are typically malleable and ductile apart from some notable exceptions like tungsten and cobalt, allowing many others to be easily shaped and formed without excessive costs. A few non-ferrous metals exhibit the highest levels of malleability and ductility of all metals—particularly gold and silver. This allows for the fabrication of complex parts through processes such as: forging, rolling, and extrusion. Additionally, the malleability and ductility of non-ferrous metals contribute to their use in: jewelry making, general metalworking, and construction sectors.

8. Non-Magnetic

Non-ferrous metals are typically non-magnetic. They are not attracted to magnets (paramagnetism) or do not retain magnetic properties (ferromagnetism) after exposure to a magnetic field. These properties arise from the absence or minimal presence of iron in their composition. Various non-ferrous metals are suitable for applications in which magnetic interference must be minimized, such as in electrical and electronic devices. The non-magnetic nature of these metals also allows for their use in sensitive equipment like MRI machines and aerospace components, in which magnetic interference could disrupt operation or accuracy.

Various non-ferrous metals do however experience powerful diamagnetism, in which eddy currents are formed in moving or forming/collapsing magnetic fields. This property is key to the AC transformer process, in which primary current and induced current coils alter voltage in proportion to the count of exposed windings. Additionally, this feature is used in electrical braking, well demonstrated by the slow fall of a magnet through a copper tube.

9. Aesthetic Appeal

Non-ferrous metals are generally considered to possess attractive aesthetics due to their natural luster, ability to be polished to a high shine, and the slowness of the oxidation process. Copper alloys, for example, develop a rich patina over time, adding to their visual appeal. Additionally, some non-ferrous metals can be anodized (forcibly oxide coated by electrochemistry) or otherwise surface coated/plated to enhance their appearance, providing a wide range of finishes for various applications. These aesthetic qualities make them popular choices for: architectural elements, decorative accents, jewelry, and artwork.

10. Low Melting Points

The melting points of non-ferrous metals vary widely depending on the specific metal. For example: aluminum’s melting point is around 660 °C, while copper's melting point is around 1,083 °C. Brass’s melting point, on the other hand, typically ranges from 900–940 °C.

These limited examples demonstrate the very wide range that this extensive family encompasses.

What Are Examples of Non-Ferrous Metals?

These are examples of non-ferrous elemental metals:

  1. Aluminum (Al)
  2. Copper (Cu)
  3. Lead (Pb)
  4. Zinc (Zn)
  5. Titanium (Ti)
  6. Nickel (Ni)
  7. Tin (Sn)
  8. Magnesium (Mg)
  9. Beryllium (Be)
  10. Tungsten (W)

The following are metals most commonly employed as constituents in alloys, often with other non-ferrous metals:

  1. Brass (copper-zinc alloy).
  2. Bronze (copper-tin alloy).
  3. Pewter (tin alloy with copper, antimony, or lead).
  4. Aluminum alloy (aluminum combined with other elements such as: copper, zinc, magnesium, or silicon).
  5. Duralumin (aluminum alloy with copper, magnesium, and manganese).
  6. Cupronickel (copper-nickel alloy).
  7. Monel® (nickel-copper alloy).
  8. Titanium alloy (titanium combined with other elements such as: aluminum, vanadium, or nickel).
  9. Zamak (Zinc alloy with aluminum, magnesium, and copper).
  10. Alnico (aluminum-nickel-cobalt alloy).

These alloys offer an extended range of properties and are used in a huge abundance of applications across all product sectors.

What Is the Use of Non-Ferrous Metals?

Non-ferrous metals and their alloys find diverse applications across various industries due to their unique and highly divergent properties as a family. Some common applications include:

  1. Aerospace: Aluminum and titanium alloys are used in aircraft components due to their lightweight nature, temperature tolerance (titanium), and high strength-to-weight ratios.
  2. Automotive: Aluminum and magnesium alloys are employed in vehicle bodies, engine components, and wheels to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency. Copper and its alloys are used in electrical wiring due to their conductivity.
  3. Construction: Non-ferrous metals are used in roofing, plumbing, electrical wiring, structural components, and widely in coatings for ferrous metals, exploiting their corrosion resistance and environmental durability.
  4. Electronics: Copper, aluminum, and their alloys are used in electronic components and conductors, transmission wiring, connectors, and heat sinks due to their electrical and thermal conductivity.
  5. Marine and Offshore: Copper-aluminum-nickel alloys are used in marine applications such as: shipbuilding, offshore platforms, and seawater piping due to their resistance to corrosion in marine environments.
  6. Medical: Titanium and its alloys are used in medical implants and instruments due to their biocompatibility and corrosion resistance.
  7. Single-use product packaging: Aluminum and tin alloys are used in beverage cans, food packaging, and aerosol containers due to their light weight, corrosion resistance, and recyclability. They are also used as coatings on ferrous metal products for similar purposes.

How Does Industry Use Non-ferrous Metals?

Industry utilizes non-ferrous metals across a wide range of applications due to their unique properties. These metals are valued for their corrosion resistance, conductivity, lightweight nature, and other advantageous characteristics. In various sectors, non-ferrous metals find applications in: mining, waste disposal, electrical generation, electricity utilization, submarine, and aerospace.

What Are the Different Types of Non-Ferrous Metals?

Non-ferrous metals form a diverse family of metallic elements and alloys. The most commonly employed non-ferrous metals include:

1. Magnesium

Magnesium is a lightweight non-ferrous metal known for its high strength-to-weight ratio, excellent machinability, and corrosion resilience. It is widely used in: aerospace, automotive, electronics, sporting goods, and medical implants. 

2. Aluminum

Aluminum is an alloy-versatile non-ferrous metal characterized by its low density, corrosion resistance, and high thermal conductivity. It is extensively used in all industries, including: aerospace, automotive, construction, packaging, and electronics. Aluminum alloys offer exceptional strength-to-weight ratios, making them ideal for lightweight structural components in: aircraft, spacecraft, light vehicles, sporting goods, and most engineering applications.

3. Zinc

Zinc is a non-ferrous metal of particularly high corrosion resistance in open environments due to its facility in forming protective oxide coatings. It finds applications in galvanizing steel to prevent corrosion, in pure form as roofing and die casting, batteries, alloys with other non-ferrous metals, and in various industrial and domestic chemical compounds.

4. Lead

Lead, a heavy metal, is extensively utilized in various industries despite well-understood and widely regulated health and environmental concerns. Applications range from batteries, ammunition, and radiation shielding to construction materials like pipes and roofing. Despite its toxicity, lead's highly valued malleability, corrosion resistance, and low melting point make it valuable for a wide spectrum of industrial purposes.

5. Titanium

Titanium is a lightweight and corrosion-resistant metal with wide-ranging applications in: the aerospace, automotive, medical, and chemical industry sectors. Its exceptional strength-to-weight ratio makes it ideal for structural components, while its biocompatibility renders it invaluable in medical implants. Additionally, titanium's resistance to elevated temperature and corrosion makes it suitable for use in: marine environments, jet/rocket components, and chemical-processing plants.

6. Copper

Copper is valued for its high electrical conductivity and malleability. It serves diverse roles in: electrical wiring, water (and other) plumbing, and electronics. It's also utilized as cladding/roofing in architecture, due to its corrosion resistance and aesthetic appeal. Copper's antimicrobial properties make it applicable in healthcare settings for surfaces and fixtures, enhancing infection control.

7. Brass

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. It offers excellent machinability, good corrosion resistance, and acoustic properties for musical instruments. Widely used in music, plumbing fixtures, and decorative applications, brass offers a balance of durability, price, and aesthetics. Its versatility extends to engineering components, in which its strength and workability find utility in various contexts.

8. Cobalt

Cobalt, a hard, lustrous transition metal, is essential in the production of high-strength alloys, lithium-based batteries, and magnets. Its unique properties, including corrosion resistance and high melting point, make it valuable in: aerospace, electronics, and medical applications. Cobalt-based alloys are prominent in gas turbines, while their magnetic properties find use in data storage.

9. Bronze

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin that possesses excellent corrosion resistance. It has a golden color when unoxidized and deep brown when the oxide film is fully developed. Widely used in sculpture, architectural accents, marine components, and musical instruments, bronze is valued for its malleability, durability, and aesthetic appeal. Its (historical) significance as an industrial and weapons-grade metal is now greatly reduced, but it is a preferred material for artistic purposes, and an extensive range of functional applications remains significant.

10. Chromium

Chromium is often used as a plating material for ferrous and other non-ferrous metals as well as plastics, with a substrate of copper applied first. This coating method enhances the corrosion resistance, cosmetics, and durability of surfaces it is applied to.

Its shiny, reflective surface and resistance to tarnishing make it ideal for decorative applications, such as: automotive trim, kitchen fixtures, and bathroom fittings. Additionally, chromium's hardness and wear resistance contribute to its use in industrial applications like tools and machinery parts to make surfaces resistant to galling and abrasion.

11. Nickel

Nickel is valued for its corrosion resistance, toughness, and durability, across virtually all industries and product sectors. It's a commonly used alloy component in stainless steel production for its ability to enhance strength and resistance to oxidation and corrosion. It is also a key component of specialist bronzes. Additionally, nickel is utilized in electroplating processes to provide a decorative finish and improve resistance to wear and corrosion in various products.

12. Tin

Tin is appreciated for its malleability, low melting point, and low toxicity. It is applied as a protective coating for other (often ferrous) metals to prevent corrosion, particularly in tin-plated steel used for food packaging.

Additionally, its low melting point and high electrical conductivity mean tin is utilized in soldering alloys, providing easily melted material for joining electronic components and plumbing fixtures.

13. Tungsten

Tungsten is valued for its exceptional hardness and high melting point. It's extensively used in various industries, including: aerospace, automotive, and electrical, for its robustness and resistance to heat and wear. Additionally, tungsten alloys are utilized in military armor-piercing ammunition, exploiting its exceptional density. Decreasingly relevant now, it was universally used for filaments in incandescent light bulbs, exploiting its high melting point.

14. Beryllium

Beryllium is characterized by its low density and exceptional stiffness. It is crucial in aerospace, defense, and electronics industries, often alloyed with copper. Its unique properties make it ideal for applications requiring high strength-to-weight ratios, such as aerospace components and precision instruments. However, beryllium is toxic, posing health risks during its mining, processing, and handling, necessitating strict safety measures.

15. Platinum

Platinum is appreciated for its rarity, durability, and corrosion resistance. It is used extensively in catalytic converters, jewelry, and electronic components. Its exceptional catalytic properties make it indispensable in various industrial-chemical processes. However, its high cost and limited presence in the earth's crust restrict its widespread use, reserving it for high-value, specialized, and low-material-use applications in which its cost can be justified by its unique properties.

How To Choose Which Type of Non-Ferrous Metals To Use

When choosing a type of non-ferrous metal for a specific application, many factors should be considered. The process follows:

  1. Assess the mechanical, thermal, and chemical properties required for the application. Strength, conductivity, and corrosion resistance vary widely across this large grouping.
  2. Evaluate the properties of the various candidates to these requirements. Carefully consider cost, availability, ease of fabrication, and particular sensitivities.
  3. Analyze the environmental conditions the material will be exposed to, as well as any regulatory compliances that may be applicable.
  4. Conduct thorough research on the performance of different non-ferrous metals in similar applications and consult with materials experts, whenever any uncertainty applies.

The optimal choice will balance the desired properties with practical considerations to ensure appropriate performance and cost-effectiveness.

What Is the Advantage of Using Non-Ferrous Metals?

Non-ferrous metals offer several advantages over ferrous metals, including:

  1. Corrosion resistance
  2. Light weight
  3. Electrical conductivity
  4. Thermal conductivity
  5. Service-temperature range
  6. Recyclability
  7. Aesthetics

What Is the Disadvantage of Using Non-Ferrous Metals?

While non-ferrous metals offer numerous advantages, they also come with some burdens that must be considered and accommodated, such as:

  1. Non-ferrous metals tend to be more expensive than ferrous metals due to their scarcity and more-convoluted extraction processes.
  2. In general, non-ferrous metals have lower tensile and yield strengths compared to typical ferrous metals, limiting their use in high-stress applications. Titanium is an exception to this, as is aluminum under optimized alloy/processing conditions.
  3. Some non-ferrous metals, such as titanium and nickel, can be challenging to machine due to their hardness, work-hardening properties, and toughness.
  4. Certain non-ferrous metals, such as platinum group metals, are relatively rare and may face supply-chain issues. Others such as aluminum and magnesium are massively abundant in the earth's crust.
  5. Some non-ferrous metals, like beryllium and lead, can pose serious and insidious health hazards if mishandled, requiring special precautions during processing and use.

What Distinguishes Non-Ferrous Metals From Other Types of Metals?

Non-ferrous metals are distinguished from other types of metals primarily by their lack of iron content, as the group name implies. This absence of iron contributes to several distinctive characteristics of non-ferrous metals, including their typical: resistance to corrosion, lighter weight, higher conductivity, and malleability/ductility.

Additionally, non-ferrous metals often exhibit unique properties such as: biocompatibility, non-magnetic behavior, strong diamagnetism in some cases, and superior electrical and thermal conductivity. These render examples of the group highly valuable in various industrial applications in which these properties are desired.

How Do Industries Leverage the Conductivity of Non-Ferrous Metals in Electrical Applications?

Industries leverage the high electrical conductivity of non-ferrous metals in electrical applications by utilizing them in the production of electrical wiring, conductors, and components. Copper and aluminum (among several others) are known for their excellent electrical conductivity and are extensively used in power transmission lines, electrical cables, and electronic circuitry. They offer efficient transmission of electrical currents with minimal voltage drop. Additionally, non-ferrous metals' conductivity makes them suitable for applications requiring high-speed data transmissions, such as telecoms and computer networking.

Is Aluminum Both a Base Metal and Non-Ferrous Metal?

Yes, aluminum is both a base metal and a non-ferrous metal. A base metal is typically defined as one that is common and easily oxidized, and aluminum fits this description. Additionally, aluminum is a non-ferrous metal, as it contains no iron.

What Is the Difference Between Non-Ferrous Metal and Ferrous Metal?

The key difference is that ferrous metals contain iron as a major component, whereas non-ferrous metals either contain no iron or only trace amounts. This fundamental difference in composition results in distinct properties and applications for each type of metal.

Summary

This article presented non-ferrous metals, explained them, and discussed their various properties and uses. To learn more about non-ferrous 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. Monel® is a registered trademark of Special Metals Corporation

Disclaimer

The content appearing on this webpage is for informational purposes only. Xometry makes no representation or warranty of any kind, be it expressed or implied, as to the accuracy, completeness, or validity of the information. Any performance parameters, geometric tolerances, specific design features, quality and types of materials, or processes should not be inferred to represent what will be delivered by third-party suppliers or manufacturers through Xometry’s network. Buyers seeking quotes for parts are responsible for defining the specific requirements for those parts. Please refer to our terms and conditions for more information.

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.