Examples and Uses of Metals and Nonmetals

Most metals are solid at room temperature

A blacksmith shaping a hot piece of iron on an anvil

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Most elements are metals, but quite a few are nonmetals. It's important to be able to distinguish between the different types of elements. Here are lists of five metals and five nonmetals, an explanation of how you can tell them apart, and some examples of their uses.

Five Metals

Metals usually are hard, dense conductors, often exhibiting a shiny metallic luster. Metallic elements readily lose electrons to form positive ions. Except for mercury, metals are solids at room temperature and pressure. Examples include:

  • Iron
  • Uranium
  • Sodium
  • Aluminum
  • Calcium

Five Nonmetals

The nonmetals are on the upper right-hand side of the periodic table. Nonmetals typically are poor electrical and thermal conductors and don't have a metallic luster. They can be found as solids, liquids, or gases under ordinary conditions. Examples include:

  • Nitrogen
  • Oxygen
  • Helium
  • Sulfur
  • Chlorine

How to Tell Metals and Nonmetals Apart

The easiest way to identify whether an element is a metal or nonmetal is to find its position on the periodic table. A zigzag line runs down the right side of the table. Elements on this line are metalloids or semimetals, which have properties intermediate between those of metals and nonmetals. Every element to the right of this line is a nonmetal. All other elements (most elements) are metals.

The only exception is hydrogen, which is considered a nonmetal in its gaseous state at room temperature and pressure. The two rows of elements below the body of the periodic table also are metals. Basically, about 75% of elements are metals, so if you're given an unknown element and asked to make a guess, go with a metal.

Element names can be a clue, too. Many metals have names ending with -ium (e.g. beryllium, titanium). Nonmetals can have names ending with -gen, -ine, or -on (hydrogen, oxygen, chlorine, argon).

Uses for Metals and Nonmetals

Metals' uses are directly linked to their qualities. For example:

  • Shiny metals such as copper, silver, and gold are often used for decorative arts, jewelry, and coins.
  • Strong metals such as iron and metal alloys such as stainless steel are used to build structures, ships, and vehicles such as cars, trains, and trucks.
  • Some metals have specific qualities that dictate their use. For example, copper is a good choice for wiring because it is particularly good for conducting electricity. Tungsten is used for the filaments of light bulbs because it glows white-hot without melting.

Nonmetals are plentiful and useful. These are among the most commonly used:

  • Oxygen, a gas, is absolutely essential to human life. Not only do we breathe it and use it for medical purposes, but we also use it as an important element in combustion.
  • Sulphur is valued for its medical properties and as an important ingredient in many chemical solutions. Sulfuric acid is an important tool for industry: It is used in batteries and in manufacturing.
  • Chlorine is a powerful disinfectant. It is used to purify water for drinking and filling swimming pools.