2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Chemistry

Hot metal work from a blacksmith.
Hot metal work from a blacksmith.

In chemistry, a metal ( Greek: Metallon) is an element that readily loses electrons to form positive ions (cations) and has metallic bonds between metal atoms. Metals form ionic bonds with non-metals. They are sometimes described as a lattice of positive ions surrounded by a cloud of delocalized electrons. The metals are one of the three groups of elements as distinguished by their ionization and bonding properties, along with the metalloids and nonmetals. On the periodic table, a diagonal line drawn from boron (B) to polonium (Po) separates the metals from the nonmetals. Most elements on this line are metalloids, sometimes called semi-metals; elements to the lower left are metals; elements to the upper right are nonmetals.

An alternative definition of metals is that they have overlapping conduction bands and valence bands in their electronic structure. This definition opens up the category for metallic polymers and other organic metals, which have been made by researchers and employed in high-tech devices. These synthetic materials often have the characteristic silvery-grey reflectiveness (luster) of elemental metals.

The traditional definition focuses on the bulk properties of metals. They tend to be lustrous, ductile, malleable, and good conductors of electricity, while nonmetals are generally brittle (if solid), lack luster, and are insulators.

Chemical properties

Most metals are chemically reactive, reacting with oxygen in the air to form oxides over changing timescales (for example iron rusts over years and potassium burns in seconds). The alkali metals react quickest followed by the earth metal">alkaline earth metals, found in the leftmost two groups of the periodic table. Examples:

4Na + O2 → 2Na2O (sodium oxide)
2Ca + O2 → 2CaO (calcium oxide)
4Al + 3O2 → 2Al2O3 (aluminium oxide)

The transition metals take much longer to oxidize (such as iron, copper, zinc, nickel). Others, like palladium, platinum and gold, do not react with the atmosphere at all. Some metals form a barrier layer of oxide on their surface which cannot be penetrated by further oxygen molecules and thus retain their shiny appearance and good conductivity for many decades (like aluminium, some steels, and titanium). The oxides of metals are basic (as opposed to those of nonmetals, which are acidic), although this may be considered a rule of thumb, rather than a fact.

Painting, anodising or plating metals are good ways to prevent their corrosion. However, a more reactive metal in the electrochemical series must be chosen for coating, especially when chipping of the coating is expected. Water and the two metals form an electrochemical cell, and if the coating is less reactive than the coatee, the coating actually promotes corrosion.

Physical properties

Traditionally, metals have certain characteristic physical properties: they are usually shiny (they have metallic luster), have a high density, are ductile and malleable, have a high melting point, are hard, are usually a solid at room temperature and conduct electricity, heat and sound well. While there are several metals that are low density, soft, and have low melting points, these (the alkali and alkaline earth metals) are extremely reactive, and are rarely encountered in their elemental, metallic form.

The electrical and thermal conductivity of metals originate from the fact that in the metallic bond the outer electrons of the metal atoms form a gas of nearly free electrons, moving as an electron gas in a background of positive charge formed by the ion cores. Good mathematical predictions for electrical conductivity, as well as the electrons' contribution to the heat capacity and heat conductivity of metals can be calculated from the free electron model, which does not take the detailed structure of the ion lattice into account.

When considering the exact band structure and binding energy of a metal, it is necessary to take into account the positive potential caused by the specific arrangement of the ion cores - which is periodic in crystals. The most important consequence of the periodic potential is the formation of a small band gap at the boundary of the brillouin zone. Mathematically, the potential of the ion cores is treated in the nearly-free electron model.


An alloy is a mixture of two or more elements in solid solution in which the major component is a metal. Most pure metals are either too soft, brittle or chemically reactive for practical use. Combining different ratios of metals as alloys modify the properties of pure metals to produce desirable characteristics. The aim of making alloys is generally to make them less brittle, harder, resistant to corrosion, or have a more desirable colour and luster. Examples of alloys are steel (iron and carbon), brass (copper and zinc), bronze (copper and tin), and duralumin (aluminium and copper). Alloys specially designed for highly demanding applications, such as jet engines, may contain more than ten elements.


Base metal

In chemistry, the term 'base metal' is used informally to refer to a metal that oxidizes or corrodes relatively easily, and reacts variably with dilute hydrochloric acid (HCl) to form hydrogen. Examples include iron, nickel, lead and zinc. Copper is considered a base metal as it oxidizes relatively easily, although it does not react with HCl. It is commonly used in opposition to noble metal.

In alchemy, a base metal was a common and inexpensive metal, as opposed to precious metals, mainly gold and silver. A longtime goal of the alchemists was the transmutation of base metals into precious metals.

In numismatics, coins used to derive their value primarily from the precious metal content. Most modern currencies are fiat currency, allowing the coins to be made of base metal.

Ferrous metal

The term "ferrous" is derived from the latin word meaning "containing iron". This can include pure iron, such as wrought iron, or an alloy such as steel. Ferrous metals are often magnetic, but not exclusively.

Noble metal

Noble metals are metals that are resistant to corrosion or oxidation, unlike most base metals. They tend to be precious metals, often due to perceived rarity. Examples include tantalum, gold, platinum, and rhodium.

Precious metal

A precious metal is a rare metallic chemical element of high economic value.

Chemically, the precious metals are less reactive than most elements, have high luster and high electrical conductivity. Historically, precious metals were important as currency, but are now regarded mainly as investment and industrial commodities. Gold, silver, platinum and palladium each have an ISO 4217 currency code. The best-known precious metals are gold and silver. While both have industrial uses, they are better known for their uses in art, jewelry, and coinage. Other precious metals include the platinum group metals: ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum, of which platinum is the most widely traded. Plutonium and uranium could also be considered precious metals.

The demand for precious metals is driven not only by their practical use, but also by their role as investments and a store of value. Palladium was, as of summer 2006, valued at a little under half the price of gold, and platinum at around twice that of gold. Silver is substantially less expensive than these metals, but is often traditionally considered a precious metal for its role in coinage and jewelry.


Metals are often extracted from the Earth by means of mining, resulting in ores that are relatively rich sources of the requisite elements. Ore is located by prospecting techniques, followed by the exploration and examination of deposits. Mineral sources are generally divided into surface mines, which are mined by excavation using heavy equipment, and subsurface mines.

Once the ore is mined, the metals must be extracted, usually by chemical or electrolytic reduction. Pyrometallurgy uses high temperatures to convert ore into raw metals, while hydrometallurgy employs aqueous chemistry for the same purpose. The methods used depend on the metal and their contaminants.


Metallurgy is a domain of materials science that studies the physical and chemical behaviour of metallic elements, their intermetallic compounds, and their mixtures, which are called alloys.


Some metals and metal alloys possess high structural strength per unit mass, making them useful materials for carrying large loads or resisting impact damage. Metal alloys can be engineered to have high resistance to shear, torque and deformation. However the same metal can also be vulnerable to fatigue damage through repeated use, or from sudden stress failure when a load capacity is exceeded. The strength and resilience of metals has led to their frequent use in high-rise building and bridge construction, as well as most vehicles, many appliances, tools, pipes, non-illuminated signs and railroad tracks.

Metals are good conductors, making them valuable in electrical appliances and for carrying an electric current over a distance with little energy lost. Electrical power grids rely on metal cables to distribute electricity. Home electrical systems, for the most part, are wired with copper wire for its good conducting properties.

The thermal conductivity of metal is useful for containers to heat materials over a flame. Metal is also used for heat sinks to protect sensitive equipment from overheating.

The high reflectivity of some metals is important in the construction of mirrors, including precision astronomical instruments. This last property can also make metallic jewelry aesthetically appealing.

Some metals have specialized uses; Radioactive metals such as Uranium and Plutonium are used in nuclear power plants to produce energy via nuclear fission. Mercury is a liquid at room temperature and is used in switches to complete a circuit when it flows over the switch contacts. Shape memory alloy is used for applications such as pipes, fasteners and vascular stents. However they are very good at conducting electricity and heat.


Metal and ore imports in 2005
Metal and ore imports in 2005

The World Bank reports that China was the top importer of ores and metals in 2005 followed by the U.S.A. and Japan.


In the specialised usage of astronomy and astrophysics, the term "metal" is often used to refer to any element other than hydrogen or helium, including substances as chemically non-metallic as neon, fluorine, and oxygen. Nearly all the hydrogen and helium in the Universe was created in Big Bang nucleosynthesis, whereas all the "metals" were produced by nucleosynthesis in stars or supernovae. The Sun and the Galaxy">Milky Way Galaxy are composed of roughly 70% hydrogen, 30% helium, and 2% "metals" by mass.

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