If you’re like me, the terms “ferrous” and “nonferrous” metals make you stare blankly and wonder if, like trigonometry, this is just another ploy to get you to learn something you’ll never actually use in real life.
But for people in the scrap metal industry, the distinction and uses of each are important and part of their livelihood.
And think of it this way, if you ever happen to be on Jeopardy! And the category is “Ferrous vs. Nonferrous”, you are going to be seriously prepared.
So, without further ado, here’s a beginner’s guide to understanding ferrous and nonferrous metals.
The Basic Difference
A ferrous metal contains iron as one of its components. Ferrous = Contains iron. Make sense?
A nonferrous metal does NOT contain iron. Nonferrous = No iron.
This also means that ferrous metals are alloys, which are a combination of several different metals and occasionally other substances. (The term “ferrous” comes from the Latin word for iron, ferrum.)
Generally speaking, magnets stick to ferrous metals since they contain iron. This is why magnets don’t stick to aluminum cans. They don’t have iron in them.
If you’re a visual learner, check out this simple explanation:
Ferrous Metal Examples
- Cast iron (iron molded in a cast to achieve a particular shape. Used for everything from brake rotors to skillets)
- Sheet iron (used in appliances like washing machines, dryers, dishwashers)
- Wrought iron (used most visibly in fencing and gates)
- Carbon steel (also called structure steel because it is frequently used in the construction industry)
- Other alloy steels of various combinations (like stainless steel, used most commonly in surgical instruments and kitchen cutlery; and carbon steel, which is used to make drill bits and other tool parts)
- Iron-based superalloys (often used to make aircraft bearing and sliding machine parts because if their heat- and erosion-resistance capabilities)
Ferrous Metal Qualities/Uses
Given their strong properties, many of these metals are employed in projects that require durability and strength. That’s why they’re used in cars and other forms of transportation, construction, shipping, piping, railroad tracks, and many tools.
Additionally, they tend to be highly magnetic, so that is why a stainless-steel pair of scissors or refrigerator door can attract a magnet so easily. However, because of high carbon content, ferrous metals will rust easily when exposed to moisture. The only exceptions are stainless steel (because of its high chromium content) and wrought iron.
Nonferrous Metal Examples
- Precious metals (gold, silver, platinum—obviously used for jewelry)
- Copper (frequently used for pots because of its ability to conduct heat)
- Lead (used in pipes and roofing)
- Tin (used in cans and becomes pewter flatware and other household items when made an alloy)
- Zinc (when an alloy, it’s often used in car building and construction)
- Aluminum (extremely common in everything from utensils to airplane parts to beer kegs)
- Brass (used for ornamentation as well as electrical fittings)
Nonferrous Metal Qualities/Uses
The lack of iron in nonferrous metals makes them ideal for uses that require repeated exposure to water and the elements of nature, so gutters, pipes, roofing parts, parts of ships, and even street and highway signs are often made of these metals.
They are also highly malleable, which makes shaping them into a finished product much easier and faster. Because of their lack of magneticity, these metals are well-suited to electronic uses like in wiring.
Finally, since nonferrous metals are very light but extremely strong, they tend to be used in industries where great strength and extreme light weight is necessary, such as with airplanes and canning machines.
Depending on the scrap yard and recycling center, it may only accept and offer one kind of metal. People tend to be more interested in nonferrous metals because they are far more easily recycled, while ferrous kinds are popular at scrap yards because of their value and their ability to be easily repurposed or reused.
What’s the Monetary Value?
If you own a junkyard or are interested in selling your old metal bits and parts to one, you’ll be interested to know how much money you can make (or have to shell out) for the metal. (If you’re the seller, an easy way to distinguish between nonferrous and ferrous metals is to use a magnet! Be sure to sort them at least into those two categories.)
Speaking generally, there is a high percentage of ferrous metal worldwide, so these tend to be much cheaper due to surplus. (This is in part due to their being constantly recycled and thus replenished.)
But nonferrous metals—remember, they include precious metals as well as brass—are harder to come by and create. Their price per pound fluctuates greatly depending on supply. (This is not true of all of them—aluminum is usually plenteous because of recycling. But it does hold true for many nonferrous metals.)
The price of scrap metal trades just like a stock market does in the United States. This means the spot price that you might receive for your scrap metals today could be very different tomorrow. American scrap metal prices are also governed by regional and local demand, so the prices in New York can be very different than the prices in California. Yet all locations have one thing in common: you can sell scrap metal to make money.
The easiest way to figure this out is to call your local junkyard or scrapyard for an estimate. They can give you a general price depending on what you have, how much, and the specifics of the market.
Additionally, know that because many nonferrous metals are alloys, their price will fluctuate depending on the degree and kind of other metals and substances in them (because this affects their usability and thus their value).
So, nonferrous metals are generally worth more, but there may be a range because of what could be called the “alloy factor.”
It should also be said that scrap metal recycling—which is what you’re doing when you buy from or sell to a junkyard or other scrap provider—is extremely beneficial for the environment. Production of products involving scrap metal have lower carbon dioxide emissions and use fewer non-renewable natural resources.
So, What’s the Difference?
Ferrous and nonferrous metals’ most basic difference is that one contains iron while the other does not. This leads to them being suited for different uses because of the different properties each metal has. Finally, there can be a difference in pricing between metals because of things like availability, market value, and ease of production.
Metals are all around us and are constantly used in some of the most basic parts of the day (showering, cooking, driving). There are entire industries that make our lives easier and fuller because of the production and availability of both kinds of metals. Do what you can to recycle the metal you don’t use—and be grateful for the genius and resourcefulness of the men and women who know all of the amazing things the right metal combinations can do!