A Material is a processed, refined item that results from putting an Ore into a Refinery or Arc Furnace. Materials are generally processed further by an Assembler to produce Components for use in Building, though Uranium Ingots can also be used directly as fuel in a Reactor. Materials largely have no use in Creative Mode, as Blocks can be placed for no cost.
It is important to get a feel for which Materials are needed for which projects. Iron and Uranium are the most common and most used Materials, due to their use in construction and energy production, respectively. Magnesium is highly valued for its ability to make things go boom, and so is used in weapons, both explosive and projectile. Gold is used for circuitry; Silicon for chips and thick glass; and Platinum, Silver, Nickel, and Cobalt for various specialized uses. Gravel is itself very common (coming from the omnipresent Stone), but is only a crafting ingredient in Reactor Components and can otherwise be ignored or trashed.
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Here is a table showing the required Materials for all vanilla Components and Tools. Use this to get a feel for which Material is used for what Component, but remember that certain Components are used significantly more than others in practice (e.g. Steel Plate and Construction Component are in constant demand, whereas Detector Components are only needed for the Ore Detector, a seldom-built module).