In chemistry, a metal is defined as an element that readily loses electrons to form positive ions (cations) and forms metallic bonds between other metal atoms (forming ionic bonds with non-metals)
Metals in general have superior electric and thermal conductivity, high luster and density, and the ability to be deformed under stress without cleaving. While there are several metals that have low density, hardness, and melting points, these (the alkali and alkaline earth metals) are extremely reactive, and are rarely encountered in their elemental, metallic form.
The majority of metals have higher densities than the majority of nonmetals. Nonetheless, there is wide variation in the densities of metals; lithium is the least dense solid element and osmium is the densest. The metals of groups I A and II A are referred to as the light metals because they are exceptions to this generalization. The high density of most metals is due to the tightly-packed crystal lattice of the metallic structure. The strength of metallic bonds for different metals reaches a maximum around the center of the transition series, as those elements have large amounts of delocalized electrons in a metallic bond. However, other factors (such as atomic radius, nuclear charge, number of bonding orbitals, overlap of orbital energies, and crystal form) are involved as well.
The nondirectional nature of metallic bonding is thought to be the primary reason for the malleability of metal. Planes of atoms in a metal are able to slide across one another under stress, accounting for the ability of a crystal to deform without shattering.
When the planes of an ionic bond are slid past one another, the resultant change in location shifts ions of the same charge into close proximity, resulting in the cleavage of the crystal. Covalently bonded crystals can only be deformed by breaking the bonds between atoms, thereby resulting in fragmentation of the crystal.
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.
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.
The two most commonly used structural metals, iron and aluminium, are also the most abundant metals in the Earth's crust.
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.
- Mortimer, Charles E. Chemistry: A Conceptual Approach. 3rd ed. New York: D. Van Nostrad Company, 1975.
- Frank Kreith and Yogi Goswami, eds. (2004). The CRC Handbook of Mechanical Engineering, 2nd edition. CRC: Boca Raton. p. 12-2.
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