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by Dr Matt Murphy

Every day we come into contact with many thousands of manufactured objects that are essential to modern life: the vehicles that we travel in; the clothes that we wear; the machines in our homes and offices; the sport and leisure equipment we use; the computers and phones that we can’t live without; and the medical technology that keeps us alive. Everything we see and use is made from materials derived from the earth: metals, polymers, ceramics, semiconductors and composites.

To develop the new products and technologies that will make our lives safer, more convenient, more enjoyable and more sustainable we must understand how to make best use of the materials we already have, and how to develop new materials that will meet the demands of the future. Materials Science and Engineering involves the study of the structure, properties and behaviour of all materials, the development of processes to manufacture useful products from them, and research into recycling and environmentally friendly disposal.

The basic building block of all matter is the atom and there are 94 different types that occur naturally on earth. These are ‘the elements’ and include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, silicon, iron, copper, and aluminium. All materials are made up of these atomic building blocks but differ in their microstructure: the types of atom they contain, the pattern in which the atoms are arranged and the way in which the atoms are joined together. The central concept in Materials Science and Engineering is that the properties and behaviour of every material is dependant on its microstructure, and that microstructure can be controlled by the way in which the material is made and processed.

Materials Scientists test the mechanical, physical, chemical and electrical properties of materials and explore how these properties depend on the microstructures they engineer and observe using high powered microscopes. Materials Engineers apply this knowledge to select the most appropriate material and manufacturing process for any given application, to predict how a component will perform in service, and to investigate how and why materials fail.

The technological advances that have transformed our world over the last 20 years have been founded on developments in Materials Science and Engineering. Materials are evolving faster today than at any time in history; enabling engineers to improve the performance of existing products and to develop innovative technologies that will enhance every aspect of our lives. Materials Science and Engineering has become a key discipline in the competitive global economy and is recognised as one of the technical disciplines with the most exciting career opportunities.

Glossary:

  • Structure – how the atoms fit together. For crystalline materials, then this involves the size and shape of the crystals (usually called grains).
  • Microstructure – structure on a small scale so that a microscope is needed to see it.
  • Properties – measured behaviour, such as strength, electrical conductivity, stiffness or colour
  • Processing – changing the shape or properties of a piece of material, for instance by heating it, rolling it or stretching it.
  • Polymers – usually called plastics
  • Ceramics – brittle non-conductors such as pottery