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What is Zinc?

Protector of Steel, Vital Nutrient


Zinc mine nugget
Barış Muratoğlu?E+/Getty Images
Zinc (Zn) is an abundant metal found in Earth’s crust with myriad industrial and biological uses. At room temperature it is brittle and blue-white in color, and can be polished to a bright finish. Zinc deficiency is a common side effect of malnutrition and affects approximately one third of the global population, causing immune system and metabolic illnesses. Read on to learn more information about the element zinc.

Physical Properties

  • Strength: Zinc is a weak metal with a tensile strength less than half that of mild carbon steel. It is generally not used in load-bearing applications, although inexpensive mechanical parts can be diecast from zinc.

  • Toughness: Pure zinc has low toughness and is generally brittle, but zinc alloys generally have high impact strength compared to other diecasting alloys.

  • Ductility: Between 212-302 oF zinc becomes ductile and malleable, but at elevated temperatures reverts to a brittle state. Again, zinc alloys greatly improve on this property over the pure metal, allowing more complex fabrication methods to be used.

  • Conductivity: Zinc’s conductivity is moderate for a metal. Its strong electrochemical properties, however, serve well in the galvanizing process and alkaline batteries


Man-made zinc alloy products have been reliably dated as far back as 500 BC, and zinc was first intentionally added to copper to form brass around 200-300 BC. Brass supplemented bronze during the Roman Empire in the manufacture of coins, weapons and art, and remained the chief use of zinc until 1746, when Andreas Sigismund Marggraf knowingly isolated the pure element. Because he carefully described his process and how it worked, zinc was soon commercially available.

Allesandro Volta created the first battery in 1800 using copper and zinc plates, ushering in a new era of electrical knowledge. By 1837, Stanislas Sorel has named his new process of zinc-plating, galvanization, after Luigi Galvani, who had discovered the animating effect of electricity while autopsying frogs. Galvanization, a form of cathodic protection, can protect a wide variety of metals and is now the primary industrial application of pure zinc.

Zinc in the Marketplace

Zinc is primarily extracted from ore containing zinc sulfide, zinc blende or sphalerite. The countries mining and producing the most refined zinc, in descending order, are China, Peru, Australia, the United States and Canada. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, nearly 80% of United States production in 2008 was from Alaska, and over 330,000 short tons of zinc was recycled.

Zinc is traded on the LME as "Special High Grade" contracts at 99.995% minimum purity in 25 tonne ingots. Their market research indicates that over 12,500,000 short tons of zinc were consumed industrially in 2008 in galvanizing, brass and bronze alloys, zinc alloys, chemical production and die casting.

Common Alloys

  • Brass: 3-45% Zn by weight. Used in musical instruments, valves and hardware.
  • Nickel silver: 20% Zn by weight. Used for its shiny silver appearance in jewelry, silverware, model train tracks and musical instruments.
  • Zinc diecasting alloys: >78% by weight. Usually contain small amounts (less than a few percent) of Pb, Sn, Cu, Al and Mg to improve diecasting characteristics and mechanical properties. Used to make small intricate shapes and suitable for moving parts in machines. The cheapest of these alloys are referred to as pot metal, and serve as inexpensive replacements for steel.

Interesting Facts

  • Zinc is critical for all life on Earth, and used in more than 300 enzymes; zinc deficiency was recognized as a clinical health problem in 1961. The International Zinc Association explains that zinc is critical to proper cellular growth and mitosis, fertility, immune system function, taste and smell, healthy skin and vision.
  • United States pennies are constructed with a zinc core comprising 98% of their weight. The remaining 2% is an electrolytically plated copper coating. The amount of copper used in pennies is subject to change if the US Treasury deems them too expensive to produce. There are as many as two billion zinc-core pennies circulating in the US!

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