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Classification using the properties of matter

Module by: Free High School Science Texts Project. E-mail the author

Metals, Semi-metals and Non-metals

The elements in the Periodic Table can also be divided according to whether they are metals, semi-metals or non-metals. On the right hand side of the Periodic Table you can draw a 'zigzag' line (This line starts with Boron (B) and goes down to Polonium (Po)). This line separates all the elements that are metals from those that are non-metals. Metals are found on the left of the line, and non-metals are those on the right. Along the line you find the semi-metals. Metals, semi-metals and non-metals all have their own specific properties.

Metals

Examples of metals include copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), gold (Au) and silver (Ag). On the Periodic Table, the metals are on the left of the zig-zag line. There are a large number of elements that are metals. The following are some of the properties of metals:

  • Thermal conductors Metals are good conductors of heat. This makes them useful in cooking utensils such as pots and pans.
  • Electrical conductors Metals are good conductors of electricity. Metals can be used in electrical conducting wires.
  • Shiny metallic lustre Metals have a characteristic shiny appearance and so are often used to make jewellery.
  • Malleable This means that they can be bent into shape without breaking.
  • Ductile Metals (such as copper) can be stretched into thin wires, which can then be used to conduct electricity.
  • Melting point Metals usually have a high melting point and can therefore be used to make cooking pots and other equipment that needs to become very hot, without being damaged.

You can see how the properties of metals make them very useful in certain applications.

Group Work : Looking at metals

  1. Collect a number of metal items from your home or school. Some examples are listed below:
    • hammer
    • wire
    • cooking pots
    • jewellery
    • nails
    • coins
  2. In groups of 3-4, combine your collection of metal objects.
  3. What is the function of each of these objects?
  4. Discuss why you think metal was used to make each object. You should consider the properties of metals when you answer this question.

Non-metals

In contrast to metals, non-metals are poor thermal conductors, good electrical insulators (meaning that they do not conduct electrical charge) and are neither malleable nor ductile. The non-metals are found on the right hand side of the Periodic Table, and include elements such as sulphur (S), phosphorus (P), nitrogen (N) and oxygen (O).

Semi-metals

Semi-metals have mostly non-metallic properties. One of their distinguishing characteristics is that their conductivity increases as their temperature increases. This is the opposite of what happens in metals. The semi-metals include elements such as silicon (Si) and germanium (Ge). Notice where these elements are positioned in the Periodic Table.

Electrical conductors, semi-conductors and insulators

An electrical conductor is a substance that allows an electrical current to pass through it. Electrical conductors are usually metals. Copper is one of the best electrical conductors, and this is why it is used to make conducting wire. In reality, silver actually has an even higher electrical conductivity than copper, but because silver is so expensive, it is not practical to use it for electrical wiring because such large amounts are needed. In the overhead power lines that we see above us, aluminium is used. The aluminium usually surrounds a steel core which adds tensile strength to the metal so that it doesn't break when it is stretched across distances. Occasionally gold is used to make wire, not because it is a particularly good conductor, but because it is very resistant to surface corrosion. Corrosion is when a material starts to deteriorate at the surface because of its reactions with the surroundings, for example oxygen and water in the air.

An insulator is a non-conducting material that does not carry any charge. Examples of insulators would be plastic and wood. Do you understand now why electrical wires are normally covered with plastic insulation? Semi-conductors behave like insulators when they are cold, and like conductors when they are hot. The elements silicon and germanium are examples of semi-conductors.

Definition 1: Conductors and insulators

A conductor allows the easy movement or flow of something such as heat or electrical charge through it. Insulators are the opposite to conductors because they inhibit or reduce the flow of heat, electrical charge, sound etc through them.

Experiment : Electrical conductivity

Aim:

To investigate the electrical conductivity of a number of substances

Apparatus:

  • two or three cells
  • light bulb
  • crocodile clips
  • wire leads
  • a selection of test substances (e.g. a piece of plastic, aluminium can, metal pencil sharpener, magnet, wood, chalk).

Figure 1
Figure 1 (CG10C1_006.png)

Method:

  1. Set up the circuit as shown above, so that the test substance is held between the two crocodile clips. The wire leads should be connected to the cells and the light bulb should also be connected into the circuit.
  2. Place the test substances one by one between the crocodile clips and see what happens to the light bulb.

Results:

Record your results in the table below:

Table 1
Test substance Metal/non-metal Does the light bulb glow? Conductor or insulator
       
       
       
       

Conclusions:

In the substances that were tested, the metals were able to conduct electricity and the non-metals were not. Metals are good electrical conductors and non-metals are not.

The following simulation allows you to work through the above activity. For this simulation use the grab bag option to get materials to test. Set up the circuit as described in the activity.

Figure 2
Figure 2 (circuits_test.png)
run demo

Thermal Conductors and Insulators

A thermal conductor is a material that allows energy in the form of heat, to be transferred within the material, without any movement of the material itself. An easy way to understand this concept is through a simple demonstration.

Demonstration : Thermal conductivity

Aim:

To demonstrate the ability of different substances to conduct heat.

Apparatus:

You will need two cups (made from the same material e.g. plastic); a metal spoon and a plastic spoon.

Method:

  • Pour boiling water into the two cups so that they are about half full.
  • At the same time, place a metal spoon into one cup and a plastic spoon in the other.
  • Note which spoon heats up more quickly

Results:

The metal spoon heats up faster than the plastic spoon. In other words, the metal conducts heat well, but the plastic does not.

Conclusion:

Metal is a good thermal conductor, while plastic is a poor thermal conductor. This explains why cooking pots are metal, but their handles are often plastic or wooden. The pot itself must be metal so that heat from the cooking surface can heat up the pot to cook the food inside it, but the handle is made from a poor thermal conductor so that the heat does not burn the hand of the person who is cooking.

An insulator is a material that does not allow a transfer of electricity or energy. Materials that are poor thermal conductors can also be described as being good thermal insulators.

Note: Interesting Fact :

Water is a better thermal conductor than air and conducts heat away from the body about 20 times more efficiently than air. A person who is not wearing a wetsuit, will lose heat very quickly to the water around them and can be vulnerable to hypothermia (this is when the body temperature drops very low). Wetsuits help to preserve body heat by trapping a layer of water against the skin. This water is then warmed by body heat and acts as an insulator. Wetsuits are made out of closed-cell, foam neoprene. Neoprene is a synthetic rubber that contains small bubbles of nitrogen gas when made for use as wetsuit material. Nitrogen gas has very low thermal conductivity, so it does not allow heat from the body (or the water trapped between the body and the wetsuit) to be lost to the water outside of the wetsuit. In this way a person in a wetsuit is able to keep their body temperature much higher than they would otherwise.

Investigation : A closer look at thermal conductivity

Look at the table below, which shows the thermal conductivity of a number of different materials, and then answer the questions that follow. The higher the number in the second column, the better the material is at conducting heat (i.e. it is a good thermal conductor). Remember that a material that conducts heat efficiently, will also lose heat more quickly than an insulating material.

Table 2
Material Thermal Conductivity (W·m-1·K-1W·m-1·K-1 )
Silver 429
Stainless steel 16
Standard glass 1.05
Concrete 0.9 - 2
Red brick 0.69
Water 0.58
Snow 0.25 - 0.5
Wood 0.04 - 0.12
Polystyrene 0.03
Air 0.024

Use this information to answer the following questions:

  1. Name two materials that are good thermal conductors.
  2. Name two materials that are good insulators.
  3. Explain why:
    1. cooler boxes are often made of polystyrene
    2. homes that are made from wood need less internal heating during the winter months.
    3. igloos (homes made from snow) are so good at maintaining warm temperatures, even in freezing conditions.

Note: Interesting Fact :

It is a known fact that well-insulated buildings need less energy for heating than do buildings that have no insulation. Two building materials that are being used more and more worldwide, are mineral wool and polystyrene. Mineral wool is a good insulator because it holds air still in the matrix of the wool so that heat is not lost. Since air is a poor conductor and a good insulator, this helps to keep energy within the building. Polystyrene is also a good insulator and is able to keep cool things cool and hot things hot. It has the added advantage of being resistant to moisture, mould and mildew.

Remember that concepts such as conductivity and insulation are not only relevant in the building, industrial and home environments. Think for example of the layer of blubber or fat that is found in some animals. In very cold environments, fat and blubber not only provide protection, but also act as an insulator to help the animal keep its body temperature at the right level. This is known as thermoregulation.

Magnetic and Non-magnetic Materials

We have now looked at a number of ways in which matter can be grouped, such as into metals, semi-metals and non-metals; electrical conductors and insulators, and thermal conductors and insulators. One way in which we can further group metals, is to divide them into those that are magnetic and those that are non-magnetic.

Definition 2: Magnetism

Magnetism is one of the phenomena by which materials exert attractive or repulsive forces on other materials.

A metal is said to be ferromagnetic if it can be magnetised (i.e. made into a magnet). If you hold a magnet very close to a metal object, it may happen that its own electrical field will be induced and the object becomes magnetic. Some metals keep their magnetism for longer than others. Look at iron and steel for example. Iron loses its magnetism quite quickly if it is taken away from the magnet. Steel on the other hand will stay magnetic for a longer time. Steel is often used to make permanent magnets that can be used for a variety of purposes.

Magnets are used to sort the metals in a scrap yard, in compasses to find direction, in the magnetic strips of video tapes and ATM cards where information must be stored, in computers and TV's, as well as in generators and electric motors.

Investigation : Magnetism

You can test whether an object is magnetic or not by holding another magnet close to it. If the object is attracted to the magnet, then it too is magnetic.

Find some objects in your classroom or your home and test whether they are magnetic or not. Then complete the table below:

Table 3
Object Magnetic or non-magnetic
   
   
   
   
   

Group Discussion : Properties of materials

In groups of 4-5, discuss how our knowledge of the properties of materials has allowed society to:

  • develop advanced computer technology
  • provide homes with electricity
  • find ways to conserve energy

Summary

  • All the objects and substances that we see in the world are made of matter.
  • This matter can be classified according to whether it is a mixture or a pure substance.
  • A mixture is a combination of one or more substances that are not chemically bonded to each other. Examples of mixtures are air (a mixture of different gases) and blood (a mixture of cells, platelets and plasma).
  • The main characteristics of mixtures are that the substances that make them up are not in a fixed ratio, they keep their individual properties and they can be separated from each other using mechanical means.
  • A heterogeneous mixture is non-uniform and the different parts of the mixture can be seen. An example would be a mixture of sand and water.
  • A homogeneous mixture is uniform, and the different components of the mixture can't be seen. An example would be a salt solution. A salt solution is a mixture of salt and water. The salt dissolves in the water, meaning that you can't see the individual salt particles. They are interspersed between the water molecules. Another example is a metal alloy such as steel.
  • Mixtures can be separated using a number of methods such as filtration, heating, evaporation, centrifugation and dialysis.
  • Pure substances can be further divided into elements and compounds.
  • An element is a substance that can't be broken down into simpler substances through chemical means.
  • All the elements are recorded in the Periodic Table of the Elements. Each element has its own chemical symbol. Examples are iron (Fe), sulphur (S), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and fluorine (F).
  • A compound is a substance that is made up of two or more elements that are chemically bonded to each other in a fixed ratio. Examples of compounds are sodium chloride (NaCl), iron sulphide (FeS), calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and water (H2O).
  • When naming compounds and writing their chemical formula, it is important to know the elements that are in the compound, how many atoms of each of these elements will combine in the compound and where the elements are in the Periodic Table. A number of rules can then be followed to name the compound.
  • Another way of classifying matter is into metals (e.g. iron, gold, copper), semi-metals (e.g. silicon and germanium) and non-metals (e.g. sulphur, phosphorus and nitrogen).
  • Metals are good electrical and thermal conductors, they have a shiny lustre, they are malleable and ductile, and they have a high melting point. These properties make metals very useful in electrical wires, cooking utensils, jewellery and many other applications.
  • A further way of classifying matter is into electrical conductors, semi-conductors and insulators.
  • An electrical conductor allows an electrical current to pass through it. Most metals are good electrical conductors.
  • An electrical insulator is not able to carry an electrical current. Examples are plastic, wood, cotton material and ceramic.
  • Materials may also be classified as thermal conductors or thermal insulators depending on whether or not they are able to conduct heat.
  • Materials may also be either magnetic or non-magnetic.

Summary

  1. For each of the following multiple choice questions, choose one correct answer from the list provided.
    1. Which of the following can be classified as a mixture:
      1. sugar
      2. table salt
      3. air
      4. iron

        Click here for the solution

    2. An element can be defined as:
      1. A substance that cannot be separated into two or more substances by ordinary chemical (or physical) means
      2. A substance with constant composition
      3. A substance that contains two or more substances, in definite proportion by weight
      4. A uniform substance

    Click here for the solution

  2. Classify each of the following substances as an element, a compound, a solution (homogeneous mixture), or a heterogeneous mixture: salt, pure water, soil, salt water, pure air, carbon dioxide, gold and bronze.

    Click here for the solution

  3. Look at the table below. In the first column (A) is a list of substances. In the second column (B) is a description of the group that each of these substances belongs in. Match up the substance in Column A with the description in Column B.
    Table 4
    Column AColumn B
    irona compound containing 2 elements
    H2Sa heterogeneous mixture
    sugar solutiona metal alloy
    sand and stonesan element
    steela homogeneous mixture

    Click here for the solution

  4. You are given a test tube that contains a mixture of iron filings and sulphur. You are asked to weigh the amount of iron in the sample.
    1. Suggest one method that you could use to separate the iron filings from the sulphur.
    2. What property of metals allows you to do this?

    Click here for the solution

  5. Given the following descriptions, write the chemical formula for each of the following substances:
    1. silver metal
    2. a compound that contains only potassium and bromine
    3. a gas that contains the elements carbon and oxygen in a ratio of 1:2

    Click here for the solution

  6. Give the names of each of the following compounds:
    1. NaBr
    2. BaSO4
    3. SO2

    Click here for the solution

  7. For each of the following materials, say what properties of the material make it important in carrying out its particular function.
    1. tar on roads
    2. iron burglar bars
    3. plastic furniture
    4. metal jewellery
    5. clay for building
    6. cotton clothing

    Click here for the solution

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