Zinc Metal: Definition, Composition, Types, Properties, and Applications
Zinc metal, denoted by the symbol "Zn," is a bluish-white transition metal valued for its ability to resist corrosion. It is often utilized as an alloying agent or protective coating. Zinc metal is also valuable because of its hexagonal crystalline structure.
Zinc is extracted from ores like sphalerite, which makes up roughly 0.04% of the Earth's crust. It is used in a variety of industries, such as: electronics, automotive, and construction. There are five stable isotopes of zinc, each with unique properties. Isotopes with atomic masses 64 and 66 are the most prevalent among them. In addition to high-grade, special high-grade, and die-casting alloys, this versatile metal is sold in other distinctive variants. This article will examine the makeup, varieties, unique qualities, and other aspects of zinc metal.
Zinc is a chemical element with the symbol Zn and atomic number 30. It is a bluish-white metal with a low melting point of 420 °C. Zinc is popular in many applications for its corrosion resistance. It is also a necessary trace element for proper functioning of the human body and other biological processes.
Humans have worked with zinc for at least 2,500 years because it’s a critical alloying element in brass. However, zinc itself wasn't recognized as a distinct element until much later. In India in the 1400s, calamine (ZnCO3) and wool were heated to generate metallic zinc. Andreas Sigismund Marggraf is credited with discovering zinc again in 1746 when he heated calamine with charcoal. This traditional method contrasts with the electrolysis of aqueous zinc sulfate (ZnSO4) used in modern zinc production.
The word “spelter” has historically been used interchangeably with “zinc,” though technically, spelter is a zinc-lead alloy. You may also encounter other terms like "galvanizing metal," "blende," and "calamine." The metallic element is known by numerous names and is commonly used in a variety of industrial and commercial applications.
Zinc is an element unto itself, so the metal is composed of zinc atoms. These atoms exhibit metallic properties, such as electrical conductivity and malleability.
The two main extraction techniques used to treat zinc metal are smelting and electrolysis. In both cases, sulfur must be removed via exothermic oxidation before extraction.
In the case of electrolysis, concentrates are heated in fluidized-bed roasters to lower the sulfur concentration in preparation for electrolytic production. After that, you create a zinc sulfate solution, purify it, and apply a regulated overvoltage so the zinc gathers on the setup’s cathode.
Smelting employs a blast furnace to extract zinc-bearing gas and liquid from sintered concentrates and coke. After that, the impurities are extracted through distillation fractionating operations.
Zinc exhibits several telltale characteristics. For instance:
- Reacts with dilute acids, liberating hydrogen gas.
- Brittle and crystalline at normal temperatures.
- Lustrous bluish-white appearance.
- Belongs to group IIb of the periodic table.
- Ductile and malleable when heated between 110 °C and 150 °C.
- Exhibits reactivity, combining with oxygen and non-metals.
Zinc metal has an attractive bluish-white hue that’s distinct from other metals.
The outer surface of zinc metal is glossy and bluish-white. It has a unique bluish tint and a bright, metallic appearance, making it simple to distinguish from other metals.
Table 1 below highlights the physical properties of zinc metal:
The temperature at which zinc changes from solid to liquid
The temperature at which zinc changes from liquid to gas
Mass per unit volume
Number of protons in a zinc atom
The mass of a single zinc atom
Arrangement of atoms in a solid lattice
Zinc reacts with acids to produce hydrogen gas and forms various salts. It can also oxidize when exposed to air.
Zinc forms a protective layer of zinc oxide on its surface, which helps protect it from further corrosion. This property is used in galvanizing to coat other metals.
Zinc primarily exists in the +2 oxidation state where it loses two electrons to form Zn²⁺ ions.
Zinc compounds can dissolve in solutions such as alkalies, ammonium salt solutions, or dilute acids. It forms zinc ions. Solubility varies depending on the specific compound and solvent.
Zinc is primarily known as a bluish-white metal. However, it comes in several varieties like those discussed below.
Pure zinc, made entirely of zinc atoms, has remarkable corrosion resistance and excellent conductivity. Because it is non-reactive, it is perfect for electrical parts, circuits, and medical equipment.
Zinc alloys are much more common than pure zinc. The alloys combine zinc with metals like aluminum or copper. They are widely employed in coins, jewelry, and car components because they’re typically robust and resist corrosion. Unlike pure zinc, alloys tend to have more useful properties, broadening their usability across various products.
Galvanized zinc features a protective layer to thwart corrosion and rust, usually employing chromium or nickel. This layer defends against moisture and potential harm from various elements. Its resilience against harsh weather renders it a prime choice for demanding scenarios such as in bridges and roofs.
Some applications of zinc metal include:
Items made of iron and steel can be galvanized with a zinc layer, shielding them from corrosion. This sacrificial protection arises from zinc's natural reactivity, safeguarding structures in diverse environments seen in: construction, transportation, and agriculture.
Marine structures combat corrosion using zinc anodes. These are sacrificial elements that divert rust-inducing effects to the anode itself rather than the broader structure. The functional lifespans of ships, oil rigs, and underwater pipelines can thus be extended even in their harsh saline environments.
Zinc alloys feature prominently in the automotive sector, contributing to lightweight components, corrosion resistance, and efficient casting processes. These qualities enhance vehicle durability and fuel efficiency.
Zinc's role in energy storage spans zinc-carbon batteries and zinc-air batteries. It functions as a cost-effective and eco-friendly solution for portable power needs, from remote devices to emergency backup systems.
Zinc's biocompatibility and antimicrobial properties make it indispensable for medical applications, from surgical tools to implants. Zinc improves safety, minimizes infection risks, and promotes healing.
Zinc compounds find their way into many products. Zinc gluconate is a dietary supplement for immune-system health while zinc oxide finds use in rubber production for its heat resistance and UV protection properties. Such compounds showcase zinc's versatile chemistry. It can also be an environmentally friendly material; zinc-based batteries are less toxic than lithium ones, so they’re greener and safer options.
Zinc metal is crucial in the construction and building industry due to its exceptional corrosion resistance. Steel structures must often be galvanized to prevent rust and extend the structure’s lifespan. This durability is evident in various architectural marvels worldwide that showcase zinc's pivotal role in ensuring longevity.
Yes, zinc metal can indeed be used in die casting. Zinc's low melting point and excellent fluidity when molten make it a favorable choice for intricate die-cast parts. Even after solidifying, it retains the mold’s fine details. To learn more, see our guide on Die Cast Materials.
Yes, zinc metal can be made into jewelry. While not as common as other metals, its malleability allows artisans to create intricate designs. However, it's often alloyed with other metals like copper to enhance durability and appearance. Zinc's affordability also makes it an appealing option for costume jewelry.
Some benefits of zinc metal include:
- Its resistance to oxidation and other forms of corrosion improves durability in various environments.
- It is highly durable, making it ideal for outdoor applications exposed to moisture and corrosive elements.
- Zinc's non-toxic nature allows for safe use in areas where people might come into contact with it.
- Its properties lead to applications across industries, from construction to medicine.
- Zinc's recyclability contributes to sustainability and resource conservation.
Some limitations of zinc metal include:
- Zinc's brittleness can limit its use in applications requiring impact resistance.
- Its relatively low melting point restricts its use in high-temperature environments.
- While corrosion-resistant in most situations, zinc may corrode in acidic or alkaline conditions.
- Zinc's properties can change when alloyed with other metals, affecting its behavior.
- Zinc is a finite resource, so its use is not entirely sustainable.
No, zinc is not considered a semimetal. It is classified as a post-transition metal. Semimetals, or metalloids, share properties of both metals and nonmetals. Zinc's electron configuration and characteristic properties, such as its metallic luster and conductivity, align more closely with those of true metals than semimetals.
Yes, zinc can be used to create metal alloys. It forms a number of familiar alloys with other metals like aluminum and copper. These alloys typically have more useful strength, durability, or other characteristics than pure metals alone. They’re thus versatile enough for applications ranging from jewelry to automotive parts. To learn more, see our guide on What is Alloy.
Yes, zinc is indeed a metal. It falls within the category of post-transition metals on the periodic table. It exhibits characteristic metallic properties, such as: conductivity, malleability, and ductility. It also forms positive ions in chemical reactions, which is a hallmark of metals. To learn more, see our guide on What is a Metalloid.
Yes, zinc metal is generally more durable than aluminum. Die-cast zinc tools tend to last longer than those made from aluminum. Zinc's greater strength contributes to its durability, allowing components to last up to five times longer than their aluminum counterparts. To learn more, see our guide on Aluminum Metal.
Yes, zinc can create crystalline formations. The metal takes on a hexagonal close-packed crystal form at ambient temperature, making the material very durable. Zinc is a crystalline substance because of this regular arrangement, which is a defining feature of crystals.
The corrosion resistance and composition of stainless steel are different from that of zinc-plated steel. Zinc plating is a thin coating that provides minimal corrosion protection. By contrast, all of the stainless steel material itself inherently resists corrosion thanks to the presence of chromium in its molecular structure, making it more durable under a variety of circumstances. To learn more, see our guide on Stainless Steel Material Properties.
This article presented zinc, explained it, and discussed its various types and advantages. To learn more about zinc, contact a Xometry representative.
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