Materials science is a relatively diverse area of study. Since its inception, this engineering field has helped to revolutionize the way we design and manufacture countless components in a number of industries. Loose concepts of materials science can be traced back to the middle ages, where a rough understanding of the elasticity and plasticity of materials allowed blacksmiths to hammer metals into tools, weapons and other useful shapes. During these times the field was based more on alchemy and empirical methods than actual science.
However, it wasn’t until the study and development of chemistry, physics and the interdisciplinary study of materials that the field of materials science truly emerged. Since the advent of this area of research, the strength, durability and reliability of metals, plastics, ceramics and other engineering materials have been vastly improved — allowing them to be used in industries and applications that would have otherwise been unfeasible. (For examples of practical applications, read Top 5 Applications for Ceramic Coatings.)
This field deals with the science of materials and their behavior, so it stands to reason that individuals dedicated to this area of study must have an aptitude for natural sciences and mathematics. Because the amount of knowledge required for this career can be detailed and quite extensive, those who wish to pursue materials science are also expected to have a high level of dedication and focus to their studies.
What is Materials Science?
To ensure the strength, durability, reliability, safety and cost efficiency of any engineered device or component, proper material selection is of utmost importance. Now more than ever, modern industries (aerospace, construction, medical, automotive, manufacturing, etc.) are demanding materials that can deliver superior performance while being as lightweight and economical as possible. (Find out why in the article How to Control Corrosion by Improving Design.)
Materials science involves the study of all materials, including an in-depth understanding of their properties and characteristics. It is a relatively broad engineering and scientific discipline that is dedicated to the improvement of existing materials as well as the creation of new ones.
The underlying principle of materials science involves relating a material's microstructure composition to its macromolecular physical, mechanical and chemical properties. By understanding these connections, materials scientists can tailor the properties and performance of new or existing materials as required for specific engineering applications.
Since its introduction, materials science has had a profound impact on:
- Environmental science
- Renewable and sustainable energy
- Material performance and efficiency
- Medicine and healthcare
- Aerospace and airline travel
- Communications and information technology
The Activities and Duties of a Materials Scientist
The majority of materials scientists are employed in companies that create a variety of products from metals, polymers, ceramics, rubbers, etc. Some individuals work in applied research, allowing them to be actively involved in the development of unique paints, coatings, superconducting materials, automotive and aerospace components and biomedical products such as prosthetics and implants. (For an interesting case study, read 30-Year Development of a Cavitation-Resistant Elastomer.) Materials scientists often work closely with other engineering fields (civil, electrical, mechanical, chemical, industrial, etc.) to ensure that the materials being developed meet or exceed the required engineering standards and specifications.
In addition to applied research, some materials scientists are employed in basic research (also known as pure or fundamental research). This field, which is primarily theoretical and experimental in nature, involves the investigation of the properties, composition and structure of matter. During basic research, combinations of elements are carefully observed and analyzed in an attempt to improve the understanding of materials that may not be immediately applicable. Basic research has led to the discovery and development of new plastics, corrosion-resistant alloys, coatings, drugs and numerous other products.
Materials scientists spend considerable amounts of time using computer software and sophisticated laboratory equipment to model, simulate, assess and analyze material properties. For example, some materials scientists may use 3D modeling and analysis software to simulate the behavior of complex molecules and molecular structures.
Some of the common duties of a materials scientist include:
- Analyzing substances and compounds to determine their composition and expected behavior
- Preparing solutions and reagents to be used in laboratory procedures
- Conducting various tests on materials and substances to verify whether they meet specified safety and quality standards
- Preparing technical reports that outline analysis procedures and findings
- Writing procedures to research and develop new products and testing methods
- Directing laboratory technicians and other staff on the testing and analysis procedures for various materials
- Providing detailed instructions on the proper chemical processing and testing procedures for specific substances
Skills and Qualifications Needed to Become a Materials Scientist
Materials science deals with the molecular structure and composition of materials and therefore is deeply rooted in chemistry and physics. This area of study also draws on fundamentals from biology and engineering. As such, those aspiring to pursue a career in materials science are required to have an affinity for science-based subjects (chemistry, physics and biology).
Entry-level material scientists should have, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree in materials science. However, since the number of dedicated programs is still relatively small, one may still pursue a career in materials science by possessing a degree in any one of the related sciences.
Undergraduates are also strongly encouraged to take the requisite information technology courses to become adept at computer modeling techniques, which have become an essential element of material research and development.
In addition to the required academic qualifications, aspiring materials scientists should also possess specific essential qualities including:
- Analytical skills – Carrying out tests, experiments and studies are among the essential duties of a materials scientist. As such, individuals employed in this profession must be able to precisely and accurately analyze and present the findings of their research.
- Communication skills – Materials scientists rarely work in isolation. They must, therefore, be able to communicate with members of the team effectively. Individuals must also be able to read, write and clearly deliver technical reports and presentations.
- Interpersonal skills – In addition to working with an internal team, chemists and materials scientists must also frequently work in interdisciplinary teams consisting of engineers from other disciplines to achieve a common goal.
- Critical thinking and problem solving skills – The ability to critically evaluate one’s work and the work of others is a crucial skill. This field may also require work with significant trial and error, especially when developing new materials and products, thus requiring materials scientists to be solution-oriented.
- Math skills – Like all engineering fields, materials science often involves the use of complex mathematical formulas and equations. Individuals in this field must have a broad understanding of fundamental mathematical principals including algebra, statistics and calculus.
Materials science involves the study of the composition and properties of a wide variety of materials and is also deeply rooted in chemistry, physics and to some extent, biology. As such, students interested in pursuing a career in this field must possess a natural aptitude for science and mathematics. Additionally, qualities such as analytical skills, problem-solving skills, effective communication and interpersonal skills are necessary to become successful in this broad and ever-expanding area of study.