transition metals header image

Chemistry only

The Transition metals-typical metals

The main part of the periodic table is shown below. The centre part (coloured red) contains the transition metals. If you were to ask most people to describe a metal the chances are they would be describing one of the transition metals; probably silver, gold or iron. The transition metals have the properties most people associate with a metal.

When compared to the alkali metals in group 1 of the periodic table the transition metals are:

Position of transition metals in the periodic table.  Transition metals make up the middle block of the periodic table.

The common properties which most people associate with metals are summarised in the image below. (click here to view more on metals)

The physical properties of metals.

How are transition metals different?

Bowl coloured with transition metal compounds, the transition metal compounds are used in glazes in the pottery industry.

I am sure you are aware that metals when they react lose electrons, so for example a group 1 alkali metal will lose 1 electron and form an ion with a 1+ charge, similarly group 2 and group 3 metals will lose 2 and 3 electrons respectively to forms ions with 2+ and 3+ charges. The transition metals are different in that they can have variable valencies; that is they can lose different numbers of electrons depending on what they react with and on the reaction conditions e.g. Iron atoms can lose 2 or 3 electrons to form ions with a 2+ or 3+ charge. Copper can lose 1 or 2 electrons to form ions with a 1+ or 2+ charge, some metals such as manganese can form ions with charges that range from 2+ to 7+. The amazing thing is that the ions with different charges also different colours.

Transition metal compounds tend to be brightly coloured compounds whereas compounds containing metals from group 1 and group 2 are mostly colourless (white). The image below shows the wide range of colours for the transition metals manganese (present in permanganate), cobalt, chromium (present in dichromate and chromate), nickel and copper. Many of these coloured compounds containing transition metals are used to colour ceramics such as plates, pots and cups. You will also find many coloured transition metal compounds used in paints and dyes.

Most transition metal compounds are coloured.

Common transition metals and their uses

Many transition metals have been known for thousands of years and most have the properties we associate with metals. Transition metals such as chromium, titanium and tungsten are very hard metals used in many tools and machines. Transition metals have high melting points, with the exception of mercury which is a liquid at room temperature. Tungsten is a transition metal with the second highest melting point of any element in the periodic table, a jaw dropping 34220C. Transition metals are also good electrical conductors with copper being used in wires and gold and silver being used in circuit boards in high end electronic devices.

Transition metals are also malleable; that is they can be hammered and beaten into different shapes. Most transition metals are also ductile, that is they can be drawn out and stretched into wires. Copper, gold and silver are ductile metals commonly used in wires for such things as HDMI connectors for TV and other electronic devices. Iron another transition metal is the main ingredient in steel. Steel like most transition metals has high tensile strength; this means it can support a heavy load before breaking.

Transition metals as catalysts

Transition metals are used as catalysts, for example in a catalytic converter in a car. The fact that transition metals do not have fixed valencies but have ions with many different positive charges makes them useful as catalysts e.g. iron is the catalyst used in the Haber process for making ammonia. Platinum, palladium and rhodium are the main metals used as catalyst in catalytic converters in cars. These catalytic converters are very effective at removing harmful emissions produced by unwanted reactions inside car engines. Nickel is transition metal used as a catalyst in the hydrogenation of vegetable oils; this "hardens" the oil and turns it into margarine.

Key Points

Mercury in a beaker.  Mercury is so dense that iron nails will float on it.

Practice questions

Check your understanding - Questions on Transition metals.

Check your understanding - Quick quiz on the transition metals.