Scientists Say: Metal

These substances conduct electricity and heat, can be shaped and are often shiny

a picture of a gym with a lady squatting and holding a barbell with weight before lifting it

Metals do a lot of heavy lifting in our lives. They’re in our weights, of course, but they’re also in cooking pans, phones and our bodies.

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Metal (noun, “MET-al”)

Metals are substances that have three major things in common. First, they can conduct electricity and heat. Metals can also be shaped. Some are hammered into flat sheets or can be pulled into wires. Finally, metals are often lustrous — which means shiny — when they are polished. 

Some metals, such as gold or iron, are elements found in the Earth. In fact, most of the periodic table is made up of metals. These metals are often located in the Earth’s crust. They have to be mined and processed before they are used. 

Other metals are alloys — metal elements combined with other elements. Sterling silver, for instance, is actually an alloy of two metals — silver and copper. Iron combined with carbon produces the alloy called steel.

Some chemical compounds — molecules made of different elements — also have metallic features. They might be made of nonmetal elements like sulfur and nitrogen. But in the right configuration, the molecules conduct heat and electricity, can be shaped and are even shiny. These are called molecular metals.

Metals are everywhere. They’re in our computers and cars. They conduct electricity through our houses. Metals in pots and pans conduct heat to cook food. And some metal elements — such as sodium, calcium and iron — are even in our bodies, where they play important roles in our health.

In a sentence

When sandwiched between metal plates, a bacteria’s tiny protein wires can turn water into electricity.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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