Essentially the study of stuff
Materials science and engineering is the design and discovery of new materials. It’s just about everything you use every day – the shoes you wear, the dishes you eat from, the car you drive, the chair you lounge in. Understanding how things are put together, how it can be used, how it can be changed and made better is what materials science is all about.
Materials are the basic substances that make up, well, anything and everything! Most materials fit into a few general categories: metal alloys, ceramics and glasses, semiconductors, and polymers. There are also composites, biomaterials and exotic materials. Materials can be natural – like wood, rock, leather. Or manmade – like plastic, glass, nylon.
There are about 300,000 different kinds of known materials, but through understanding how materials work, materials scientists can create and combine materials in new ways, or develop existing materials to improve performance.
It’s not every day you hear about a materials scientist. One reason is materials science covers a wide range of activities and touches on many different fields – including chemistry, biology and physics. But as diverse as they are, materials scientists emphasise understanding how the history of a material influences its underlying structure, and thus the material’s properties, how processing changes it, and what the material can do and how it performs.
In the past, people used and changed materials by trial and error on a big visible scale. For example, rapidly heating and rapidly cooling. Nowadays, modern materials scientists manipulate and change materials based on fundamental understandings of how the materials are put together, often on the tiny scales of atoms.
The stone age, bronze age, iron age and silicon age are reminders of how the history of our civilisation goes hand-in-hand with materials science, leading to countless innovations and breakthroughs.