Teachers Powered by teachers'domain

The Structure of Metal

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 02.20.04
  • NOVA

This interactive activity from the NOVA Web site describes the crystalline structure of metal and uses animations to illustrate the molecular changes that occur when a metallic substance is bent, heated, or otherwise changed by external forces.

Supplemental Media Available: The Structure of Metal (Interactive)

NOVA The Structure of Metal
  • Media Type: Interactive
  • Size: 196.3 KB
  • Level: Grades 6-12

  • Log in to Teachers' Domain to download, share, rate, save, and match to state standards.

Source: NOVA: "Why the Towers Fell"

This resource can be found on the NOVA: “Why the Towers Fell" Web site.


Metals consist of stacked layers of tightly packed, interacting atoms arranged in geometric patterns. Each of these atoms contains a small number of loosely held electrons in its outer shell. When metal atoms are close to one another, the outer-shell electrons don't orbit a particular nucleus; instead, they move freely among the atoms and form a negatively charged sea, or cloud, of electrons. This cloud surrounds the arrangement of positively charged nuclei and stable inner-electron shells and fixes them in position. The resulting material is tightly bound and physically strong. At the same time, the electron cloud is highly responsive to electric and magnetic forces, making metals good conductors of both heat and electric current, and also reflectors of light.

Metals may be strong, but because their crystalline structure is not perfect, they can be bent, twisted, stretched, and otherwise shaped. During the cooling process, when a metal changes from a liquid to a solid state, not one but many smaller crystals form, each with imperfections. Extra layers of atoms are squeezed in at some points, while other places may be missing atoms altogether or contain atoms of a different element. These imperfections become part of the metal when it solidifies and serve to weaken the bonds between some of the layers. When an external force is applied to the metal, these layers may shift more easily than those without imperfections. Typically, when an external force is removed, the layers shift back to their original positions. If the force is large enough or repeated too frequently, however, the shifting may become permanent.

Metals are typically good thermal (heat) and electric conductors because electrons in the electron cloud move relatively freely and carry energy and electric charge as they do. Extreme heat, however, will melt metal because highly energized atoms move fast enough to break the bonds between them, thus softening the metal. The critical temperature, or melting point, is different for each type of metal.

Questions for Discussion

  • What are the three main types of bonds that bind atoms together?
  • What is the relationship between heat and movement of atoms in a metal?
  • What are some reasons metal objects are not uniformly strong in all places?

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						National Science Foundation

Related Resources

  • Metal Fundamentals

    Why defects make metal stronger, how hardness differs from toughness, and other marvels of this elemental substance

  • The Structure of Metal

    In this interactive, explore metal at the atomic level.

  • Secrets of the Samurai Sword

    Explore metal characteristics. Produce series of posters on different alloys. Outline properties and how they are used.

  • Materials That Changed History

    From ceramics to steel, paper to plastics, certain basic substances have long propped up civilization.