What is materials science and engineering?

What is materials science?

  • Have you ever thought?

  • How do people make lightweight laptops, smartphones, and flexible gadgets using plastics?
  • Why is graphene stronger than steel?
  • How is iron changed to steel?
  • Why is diamond harder and graphite soft? Both have the same carbon atoms in them?

   Figure: Age of materials classification

The answer to these questions is given by materials science and engineering. Mankind’s development mostly relies on materials. Understanding the material’s properties helps us move from the stone age to this information age. The human civilization is classified based on the materials such as the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the glass age, the industrial age, and now the discovery of semiconductors like silicon made advanced development in technologies and enables the information age (silicon age).

Stone age:

At the early age of humankind, humans were limited to the use of naturally occurring materials like stones, bones, ivories, skin, etc., for their needs. With the discovery of fire, when they heat treated the soil/clay, they discovered it improves the properties of the clay and becomes superior in strength and durability. This leads to the development of earthenwares.

Bronze age:

The bronze age (3000-1200 BC) is one of the important eras in the development of humankind. Humans learned to extract elements (copper-tin) from the ore and developed weapons, ornaments, and vessels using bronze. The discovery of bronze limited the use of stone weaponaries.

Iron age:

The use of bronze gets limited around 1200 BC when humans discovered new strong material called iron. They began to forge iron which is way stronger than bronze. The use of iron gets popular when people learned how to make steel which is stronger than iron made by heating iron with carbon.

Glass age:

The glass age popularizes around 300 CE for decorative purposes and window glasses and doors.

Industrial age:

The industrial age begins around 1300 CE and is one of the most important eras for the development of mankind. It is the transition from making goods by hand to using machines. One of the important discoveries in the industrial age is coal. Using coal, humans turned iron ore easily into iron. The steam engine was invented, which mechanized making goods easily in the factories.

Silicon age (Information age)

The silicon age also known as the information age or digital age begins in the late 20th century and early 21st century. The discovery of semiconductors for the use of applications in electronic devices like transistors has remarkably changed human development. The advancement in semiconducting fields leads to the invention of the FM radio, smart television superfast computers, and smartphones from their bulk version.

From the introduction about the age of materials, we can see that materials play a key role in human civilizations. Only by understanding the properties and structure of materials, we have evolved to this age.

It is necessary to study the materials for human development.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries when scientists and engineers emphasis to understanding the relationship between the material’s structure and properties, it empowered them to synthesize/manufacture new kinds of materials that meet our modern society’s needs which include polymers, ceramics, and metals. Understanding the material type is the forerunner to the progression of technology. The utilization of simulation in materials science makes it simpler to discover new materials, forecast their properties, mechanism, and so on. With these new technologies in materials development, it makes our life comfortable and even better.

We can see that materials play a key role in human society, for a better understanding of the materials we need a course to study materials. It’s the time when materials science and engineering course is born.

What is materials science and engineering?

Materials science and engineering is an interdisciplinary field of study it is a unique combination of fields that encompasses physics, chemistry, engineering, and even biology (biomaterials science). MSE is usually involved in inventing, designing, developing, discovering, and improvising the properties of materials. MSE allows the student to deeper understand the materials synthesis-processing-microstructure-composition relationships.

How did it emerge as a new field of study?

When researchers try to understand the phenomenon of the ancient material, they need to utilize the knowledge of physics, chemistry, and engineering. And that’s how it begins, the seed to emerge as a new field in the modern era of engineering science and technology.

At the beginning of the 1940s, the field has been widely recognized by eminent scientists, engineers, and universities around the world. Then they created a dedicated school for this course in major technical and science universities around the world.

But until the 1960s, the materials science department was recognized as the metallurgy or ceramic engineering department. Because at the time, the most advanced materials were metals and ceramics.

After the 1960s, with the development of semiconducting materials like silicon, germanium, etc., the electronic industry gets developed rapidly. And the development of polymeric materials, advanced materials such as nanomaterials, biomaterials, and magnetic materials emphasize the need for materials science and engineering.

                                                     Figure: Materials science paradigm

Classification of MSE:

The field can be classified as Materials science and Materials engineering but is generally termed as materials science and engineering. Both fields have their roles in developing materials.

Materials science: 

The field mostly emphasizes on relationship between the structure and properties of materials, synthesizing and processing of materials.

Materials Engineering:

On the contrary, materials engineering focuses on how to create/develop products from the materials, in simple words transforming the material into a new device /or structure (new crystal form by engineering the materials).

Example 1: The role of materials scientists and materials engineers in real-life research:

                We know that ceramics are not a good conductor of electricity, but researchers found a ceramic compound named yttrium barium copper oxides (YBCO). Under certain conditions, YBCO conducts electricity without any resistance (superconducting phenomena were observed). Here superconducting behavior is discovered in ceramic materials by experimental research. The limitation is that they superconduct only at lower temperatures below 150 K.

Now, we must make the material better, and the first thing is to retain the superconducting behavior at a higher temperature. The second thing is how we can transport the current over a long distance using this superconducting material.

Here, a materials scientist study about the composition and microstructure of the materials causing the superconducting behavior. And study any other compound exhibiting the superconducting ability by synthesizing the materials with ultrafine size, thin films, or changing their morphology to create useful devices.

By the materials engineering approach, we must find to way to create long wires for power transmission. Ceramics are hard and brittle, so it is difficult to make long wires. For these materials, processing techniques had to be developed to create long wires with reliable and reproducing ability. One of the ways to create ceramic superconducting wires is to fill the YBCO powder in silver tubes and then draw it into wires.

Example 2:

Steel is discovered thousands of years ago during the iron age. Now steel sheets are used in the manufacturing of car chassis due to their extremely high strength, durability, and lightweight, which account for fuel efficiency.

Here, materials scientists are concerned with the steel’s composition and microstructure. Materials engineers focus on shaping (metal forming) the steel to improve its mechanical properties.

Even though they are referred to separately as materials science and materials engineering, the graduates are trained to work both as scientists and engineers.

Relationship with other fields:

In the mid-20th century, the research in the creation, discovery, and design of new materials has evolved rapidly. So, to overcome this a unique field has to be created exclusively to study the materials.

The field has been formed by renaming/combining the existing metallurgy and ceramic departments, the inclusion of solid-state physics, and the addition of polymer science/engineering. It is recombining the aspects of chemistry, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, nanoscience, technology, etc.

                                         Figure: Relationship of MSE with other STEM fields

The field is entirely interdisciplinary as a material researcher/engineer, one must know and utilize the strategies of engineers, physicists, and chemists. It is also unique and important in scientific and application aspects. So, it must be signed in engineers/scientist education.

The specialty of materials science and why there is a need to study:

  New specialized courses are introduced today by separating/splitting/fission from the parent field. But the materials science is formed by the fusion of various concepts (from fundamental to advanced) from the fields such as physics, chemistry, metallurgy, mechanical, chemical, ceramic, mathematics, electrical, etc

Many engineers and applied scientists in the fields of mechanical, semiconductors, civil, chemical, etc. will encounter some design problems involving materials. For example a transmission gear, failure analysis, building superstructures, integrated circuits, packaging materials for longevity of items, etc. But they won’t have any exposure to materials design, here comes the life-savior materials scientists/engineers for this kind of materials design problem. Because they are specialists in investigating and design of materials. The new materials design will greatly reduce economic crisis, and be feasible with improved efficiency. 

More familiar with materials structure-property relations as well as processing techniques of materials will be a great advantage in inventing/discovering novel materials with superior properties. Modern engineering problems require new materials. Materials science is considered the bottleneck of modern engineering. Because new technological breakthrough occurs only through materials science.

    Figure: MSE act as a bottleneck for new technological implementation with current STEM fileds

Post a Comment

Post a Comment