Metals can be categorized in many different ways. They can be categorized as an alloy, magnetic or nonmagnetic, or even using a grading system for specific metals like steel. However, one of the most important categorizations is whether a metal is ferrous or non-ferrous. In order to understand why this categorization is important, we first need to understand the difference between these metals.
On the surface, the difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals is blindingly simple. Ferrous metals contain iron, and non-ferrous metals do not. However, there’s much more to that distinction than a simple black and white definition. Some non-ferrous metals do contain iron, but only in trace amounts. If iron is the first, second, or third main component, a metal is usually categorized as ferrous. Any other amounts usually lead to the metal being categorized as non-ferrous. However, it goes beyond that. The different compositions and uses of ferrous and non-ferrous metals are vast. Let’s examine some of the main qualities apparent in ferrous and non-ferrous metals.
Iron and many types of steel are all common examples of ferrous metals. These metals are well-known and popular because of how long they last. As you can imagine, thanks to the durability of these composites, ferrous metals are often used in construction, pipelines, and even the creation of tools. Cast iron skillets are a great example of the durability of ferrous metals.
When you look at the uses of ferrous metals, you’ll recognize many products that are associated with strength. Products such as railroad tracks and cars rely on this strength to do their jobs over many years.
Just because they’re sturdy doesn’t mean ferrous metals aren’t also extremely malleable, which means the metal can be shaped without cracking or breaking. Steel, for example, is just blended iron and carbon. However, by changing the amount of either ingredient or adding in a few other materials, steel can be transformed to become anything from the thick steel beams used in skyscrapers to shiny stainless steel.
Because they contain little to no iron, non-ferrous metals tend to be non-magnetic. This makes them very useful in jewelry, wiring and electronics.
Another advantage of the lack of iron content is the resistance to corrosion. Non-ferrous metals tend to last for a long time because they don’t corrode due to rust over time. This makes them extremely useful in products that are exposed to the elements like water pipes and gutters.
One last advantage of non-ferrous metals is that they are malleable and lightweight. This makes the metal easy to shape into a finished product quickly. Because of this, they’re used in certain airplane parts and street signs.
Non-ferrous metals have a limitless variety of uses. Copper and aluminum are used for their ability to conduct heat and electricity. Several non-ferrous metals make up the core components of most smartphones. Of course, metals like gold and silver have been used decoratively for thousands of years. Non-ferrous metals are fundamentally resistant to both corrosion and magnetism, making them obvious choices for many applications across many different industries.
When it comes right down to it, the major difference between ferrous and non-ferrous metals is cost and availability. This is what affects how and when they’re used in producing everything from jewelry to automobile engines. Ferrous metals have the advantage here because the basic ingredients of ferrous metals — minerals like carbon and iron — are plentiful, easily obtainable, and often less expensive.
On the other hand, non-ferrous metals like gold and silver are exceptionally rare. That, combined with their relatively wide range of uses, tends to make non-ferrous metals more expensive. That’s why they’re often referred to as “precious metals.”
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