What is A Non-ferrous Metal?
Non-ferrous metals include aluminum, copper, gold, lead, nickel, silver, zinc and tin. Non-ferrous metals can also be alloys that contains two or more of those elements, such as brass (copper + zinc) and pewter, which is mostly tin.
Non-ferrous metals have been in use through much of recorded history, and some since before then. For example, a pendant created with copper dating back to 87,000 BC was found in what is now northern Iraq. More common use of copper started somewhere between 8,000 to 5,000 BCE and ended the Stone Age. The invention of bronze, which is an alloy of copper and tin, marked the end of the Copper Age. Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Celts all used pewter for jewelry. Around 1,200 BCE the use of ferrous metals became more common in conjunction with iron production.
As for the difference between non-ferrous and ferrous metals, it’s quite simple: non-ferrous metals do not contain iron, ferrous metals do.
- Malleability – Non-ferrous metals are much more pliable than ferrous metals, meaning they can be stretched and formed using force from a tool like a hammer or pressure from a machine like a roller.
- Versatility – The malleability of non-ferrous metals make them an excellent material for making tools, forming parts for machines and creating works of art.
- Rust / Corrosion Resistance – Because non-ferrous metals do not contain iron, they’re preferred for use in situations where the metal will come into contact with moisture. Examples are copper pipes, aluminum outdoor signs and zinc rain gutters.
- Nonmagnetic – Non-ferrous metals are ideal for most electronic devices, which require non-magnetic cables and wires. In some cases, wiring for buildings needs to be nonmagnetic, as well. This elemental property also makes it easy to determine whether a metal is ferrous or non-ferrous. Simply hold it close to a magnet. If the metal is attracted to the magnet, then it’s ferrous; if not, it’s non-ferrous.
- Chemical Consistency – Non-ferrous metals maintain their chemical properties even when they’re recycled and reprocessed over and over again.
- Lightweight – Generally speaking, non-ferrous metals are lighter than ferrous metals, which makes them ideal for applications where the combination of high strength and low weight are necessary, such is in airplane bodies and radiator cores.
Commonly Recycled Non-ferrous Metals
Aluminum, copper and brass are the most commonly recycled non-ferrous metals, mostly because they’re often used in common consumer items.
They’re also valuable. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, non-ferrous scrap is the third-most recycled material in the United States based on volume, behind steel and paper, but amounts to more than half of the total earnings in the scrap recycling industry. In fact, since recycling operations like Cohen purchase non-ferrous metals on a per-pound basis rather than per ton, they’re usually more valuable to typical recyclers.
The scrap value of non-ferrous metals can vary widely from day to day, just like the prices paid for virgin ore. Non-ferrous prices tend to fluctuate more often than ferrous prices due to the frequency with which those materials are bought and sold. Usually the best way to find out what pricing is for a given metal is to call the scrap recycling center you plan to visit ahead of time. (All of Cohen’s locations and phone numbers are available here.)
How Are Non-Ferrous Metals Used?
Non-ferrous metals are used to create or form literally hundreds of thousands of items we’re accustomed to seeing or using every day.
We’ve talked about copper pipes in buildings, but did you know that many of those buildings also have copper roofing materials protecting them? Copper is commonly used in wires, as well, and if you have a U.S. or Canadian penny in your pocket, you’re carrying some copper around with you (just a coating, though).
If you don’t drink your soda out of a plastic bottle, you’re probably chugging it from an aluminum can. And the next time you fly out to visit grandma, you’ll be seated in an aluminum tube (the airplane body). Aluminum also is common in beams and rails for construction, the pots and pans in your kitchen, and the boats and docks you use when catching tonight’s dinner.
Speaking of marine equipment, a lot of it is made with nickel, too. Other typical applications for nickel and nickel alloys are cryogenic tanks and combustion chamber components for the aerospace industry.
Finally, let’s get down to brass tacks. Long before anyone had a handheld global positioning system, brass helped people get to where they were going, and on time, too. That’s right – brass is common in compasses and watches. And while those gadgets are going the way of other icons of the past like brass beds and brass doorknobs, these days brass is used in everything from automobile radiator cores to household appliances. Your nephew’s tuba? Yeah, that’s probably brass, too.
We could go on forever – it’s impossible to get through a day without seeing, using or at least brushing up against something that contains a non-ferrous metal.
Recycling Non-Ferrous metal conserves Energy and saves landfill space.
As with recycling of any material, recycling of non-ferrous metals reduces the amount of space taken up in the nation’s landfills, which are closing in on their capacities at alarming rates. And in terms of energy consumption compared to mining virgin ore, the savings is considerable. For example, it takes 95 percent less energy to process recycled aluminum than it takes to mine and process it, and copper requires 90 percent less.