Although a few metals occur uncombined in nature, the great majority are found combined in their ores. The separation of metals from their ores is called extractive metallurgy. Metals are mixed with each other in definite amounts to form alloys; a mixture of mercury and another metal is called an amalgam. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and brass contains copper and zinc. Steel is an alloy of iron and other metals with carbon added for hardness.
Since metals form positive ions readily, i.e., they donate their orbital electrons, they are used in chemistry as reducing agents (see oxidation and reduction). Finely divided metals or their oxides are often used as surface catalysts. Iron and iron oxides catalyze the conversion of hydrogen and nitrogen to ammonia in the Haber process. Finely divided catalytic platinum or nickel is used in the hydrogenation of unsaturated oils. Metal ions orient electron-rich groups called ligands around themselves, forming complex ions. Metal ions are important in many biological functions, including enzyme and coenzyme action, nucleic acid synthesis, and transport across membranes.
For the uses of specific metals, see separate articles.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.