It may sound like a rudimentary question, but trying to answer the question “what is metal?” accurately is perhaps a bit trickier than it might seem at first glance – Go on, give it a go and try and define what metal actually is before reading any further…

If you said something along the lines of a hard and shiny substance, you’d only be vaguely correct. For example, the mercury in a thermometer is liquid at room temperature and iron becomes molten when heated to a high temperature. This throws out half of the ‘hard and shiny’ definition right at the outset. Also, iron certainly ain’t shiny when it’s covered in rust.

Metal can’t even be said to be a substance that exclusively conducts electricity. Graphite (a type of carbon) can also do this – and graphite isn’t a metal. We then have semi-conductors which are kind of a halfway house between an insulator (e.g. the plastic-like, rubbery covering of an electrical wire) and a conductor (the wire itself).

To complicate matters even further, there are weird and wonderful substances like Polythiazyl (polymeric sulfur nitride). This is electrically conductive and has a metallic-like lustre insofar as it looks quite similar to gold. Polythiazyl is actually classed as a polymer rather than a metal.

Metal can’t even be described as just an atom, chemical element or molecule since everything else that isn’t metal is made of these as well.

So, how do we simply define what metal is?

The answer (well, not really)

Let’s start with a quick look at Wikipedia’s attempt at answering the question:

A metal (from Greek μέταλλον métallon, “mine, quarry, metal”) is a material that, when freshly prepared, polished, or fractured, shows a lustrous appearance, and conducts electricity and heat relatively well. Metals are typically malleable (they can be hammered into thin sheets) or ductile (can be drawn into wires). A metal may be a chemical element such as iron; an alloy such as stainless steel; or a molecular compound such as polymeric sulfur nitride.

…Many elements and compounds that are not normally classified as metals become metallic under high pressures. For example, the nonmetal iodine gradually becomes a metal at a pressure of between 40 and 170 thousand times atmospheric pressure. Equally, some materials regarded as metals can become nonmetals. Sodium, for example, becomes a nonmetal at pressure…

Are you confused yet?

If you read all of the above and not just the first paragraph then it should be apparent that asking the question “what is metal?” isn’t as daft as it seems. The above definition actually seems to confuse the answer even further.

Namely, if we take a look at the Britannica online encyclopedia’s entry on Polythiazyl, it unequivocally states that Polythiazyl “is composed solely of two nonmetals” whereas the Wiki definition says that it can be classed as a metal.

Furthermore, the second paragraph from Wiki really makes our head spin by saying things such as “the nonmetal iodine gradually becomes a metal…” and “some materials regarded as metals can become nonmetals…“.


OK, I think we’re done with this post and are going to bale on it because I now have literally no idea what metal is!

What I am sure about though is that here at Ace Breakers, we’ll give you an awesome price for your scrap car, which is made from metal (I think). We also provide scrap metal skip hire, sell car batteries and a wide range of used car parts, including engines and gearboxes, both of which are sold with a warranty.

Related posts: If you enjoyed this article, you may also like What is Rhodium? and The Difference Between Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metal.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This