Metal Has No Smell

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 26, 2006 6:00 pm

So you know how if you’ve been handling coins you get that distinctive whiff of metal? Or how the water from the fountain in the back end of your elementary school tasted pretty much like the smell of those coins? You were wrong—metal has no smell.

According to a Nature news article about a recent study in the famous Angewandte Chemie Internation Edition, what we think of as the smell of metal is actually the smell of our own body. When we come into contact with metal, it catalyzes reactions among the slime of organic molecules that coats our bodies. When skin oils are exposed to iron and copper they can produce smelly aldehydes and ketones; for instance, touching iron can produce the ketone 1-octen-3-one, which has a mushroom-like, metallic odor (which, I’m guessing, can’t be good).

One thing (among many) that seems weird to me about this is that I could swear that I’ve smelled metal that hasn’t touched my skin or the skin of someone near me. Maybe it’s possible that someone touched it in the past and although they’re long gone, their fetid, decomposing skin oils linger on. Or maybe that’s an effect of being an animal—unlike, say a dog—that usually brings smellable items up to the nose rather than the other way around.

(Via The Daily Grail)

  • john florentin

    what is the smell when you machine a piece of aluminium? Its not there when you just handle it.
    john f

  • Enrico Fermi

    But have you ever smelled aluminum in a vacuum?

    wait, never mind

  • RAThomas

    Insightful comments. I’ll add that machining any metal (that I’ve been around to witness, anyway) let’s off a smell distinctive to that metal. As earlier comments said, without you having touched it. Why does iron or steel smell a certain way when being machined? Well, that would be chemistry in action, just as the article says. Just as a fragrance flower’s “smell” is sensed from its volatile compounds evaporated into the air, so are the smells of metal. When I accidentally sniff a bit of iron dust while filing on a block of metal, the scent I smell may well be based in the chemical reactions occurring in my nose from the interaction of the metal and water, oils, etc in my olfactory canals, but it works for the human senses just as well and in similar ways as smelling a rose.

    So, as far as the human senses go, metals have a smell.

    Interesting article almost makes an interesting point, but fails by flawed conclusion.

  • Navid48us

    It is theorized that the atoms that separate from an object
    and float in the air cause smell.  I am
    not sure if this theory is correct.  What
    about the smaller particles within the atom that have almost no mass?


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