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Engineering Atoms

at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2015

What is Materials Science?

Materials Science is all about understanding:

  • how things are made, whether by nature or changed by us,
  • how they can be used, and
  • how they can be made to perform better for ever more demanding uses. 

Materials Science fits in the space between engineering, physics and chemistry, combining the design of innovative machines and devices with an understanding of the rules and limits of the natural world. A surprisingly large number of important scientific and engineering problems in today’s world are based on a lack of suitable materials; this might be because better materials are too expensive or dangerous to obtain, or we simply do not have enough research into alternatives. This means that breakthroughs in Materials Science can have a big impact on how technology evolves.

What exactly are Materials?

From left to right examples of polymers, metals and ceramics

Materials are what everything is made of and can be natural, like wood, or designed and made by humans, like plastic – in total, the list is very long with about 300 000 different known materials.

A big step in the field was the Space Race; in the past century this has helped define the basis of much of Materials Science research, with metals and their alloys for the hull, silicon for the electronics and carbon for some of the wackier applications like heat shields for re-entry.

Today, research goes much further than the original trio of metals, ceramics and polymers to now include nanotechnology and biomaterials, which between them focus on creating materials with novel structures and unique functionalities from both organic and inorganic building blocks down to the nanometre scale. This is often inspired by nature itself – think about how strong and light bones are; so, by using the design of a bird’s wings, we can make lighter and more fuel efficient aircraft.

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