To answer the question of where metals come from, first we need to define the word, “metal.” Pure metals are basic elements of matter. There are 118 known elements either found in nature or created in the lab. Most of these elements are metals, but there are a small number of non-metal elements, such as carbon, and a few “in-between” elements, called metalloids.
What Are Metals?
Metals have certain physical properties that distinguish them from non-metals and metalloids. The most obvious difference is that metals conduct heat and electricity very well. They are typically hard when solid, and have a glossy shine. Another important quality of metals is that they are ductile, which means they can be hammered, or worked, into different shapes. They also can be melted and cast into molds, or cut with machine tools to create useful objects.
All of the metals that we find on Earth originated billions of years ago. Inside the ultra-hot environment of the stars, simple hydrogen and helium atoms fused together to create heavier elements. After the original stars exploded, dust and gas from the explosion found its way to our local galaxy and was caught up in the making of our own solar system. Particles swirling around the new sun clumped together into planets, including Earth.
How Do You Make Metal?
A lot of the metal on Earth, especially iron, is found in its core. Metal is scattered unevenly throughout the Earth’s crust, mixed with rock and combined with oxygen and other elements. Some types of rock, such as granite, only hold trace amounts of metal. The metal we use to make buildings, computers, cars and trucks, and many other products comes from underground deposits of mineral ores containing high concentrations of metal.
The earliest humans discovered small bits of naturally abundant metals, such as copper, tin and gold, which they hammered into ornaments and other objects. They learned to mix metals together to create new metals, called alloys, which improved their characteristics. For example by mixing copper with tin, they created bronze, which is much harder and better for weapons than pure copper. An important metal alloy is steel, which is iron mixed with small amounts of carbon.
How Metal Alloys Are Made
The first step in making metal alloys starts with mining the ore from the ground. The ore must then be processed to extract the metal from non-metals, such as rock. The extraction process may include:
- crushing the ore into powder
- heating it to high temperatures
- rinsing it with water or a chemical bath
- filtering the sludge
- precipitating out the liquid
- applying an electric current to break strong chemical bonds
Once the metal has been extracted, it can be used for an enormous number of purposes, from aluminum cans to steel scaffolding, from galvanized roofs to electronic circuits.
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