What is Materials Engineering?
Our world has experienced nothing short of a technological revolution throughout the last century. We have refrigerators that can store and extend the shelf life of food, new modes of transportation that can carry us across the world in a day, robots and drones that can exceed human capabilities, and phones that let us access almost all the knowledge in the world with a few clicks. The list of technological marvels only continues to grow as we learn new skills and discover new information. If you were tasked with identifying the different types of engineers who developed these technologies, you might think of mechanical, electrical, civil, or maybe even software engineers. However, there is one field of engineering that is critical for the success of others, but is often overlooked. Materials scientists and engineers have played key roles in all of these projects, however, many people are completely unaware of what materials engineers do, or even that they exist at all!
According to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UMD, “Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) combines engineering, physics and chemistry principles to solve real-world problems associated with nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, energy, manufacturing and other major engineering disciplines.” Essentially, materials engineering is very important to the continuous development of new technologies and materials engineers are crucial members of a tech development team. So, we now know that materials engineers are critical for the success of any project, but the question remains: What is materials engineering?
According to Hadas Elazar-Mittelman, a senior in the Materials Science and Engineering Department and a member of Cohort 30, “Materials engineering is trying to take what we know about chemistry and physics and apply this basic knowledge to manipulate materials to behave in a certain way, meaning to ensure that the material possesses properties needed for whatever the application.” For example, airplanes must withstand high wind pressure, be resistant to large changes in temperature, and be durable to last for the multiple take-offs and landings that happen every day. A materials engineer would use their knowledge about how a material responds to pressure, temperature changes, and prolonged use in order to choose the best material for the plane, or even iterate on previous findings to develop a new material. The skill set a materials engineer possesses is vital, especially in fields like electronics that need very specific material behavior in order for advanced technologies like circuits or sensors to function. Hadas went on to quote one of her professors that materials engineering is the “Rosetta Stone of engineering” because materials engineers can talk to almost any type of engineer or technical professional, functioning as a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ when trying to contribute to an effort. The breadth and depth of the materials engineering field makes the discipline very nuanced yet still accessible to every field in engineering.
The famous saying “you are what you eat” describes how you are only as healthy as you treat your body; a materials engineering analogy could be “you are what you are made of,” meaning that a technology is only able to be efficient, durable, long-lived, and feasible if it is made from the correct materials. Therefore, just like people need doctors to teach them how to properly treat and maintain their bodies, engineering teams need materials engineers in order to create technologies that can succeed and survive the test of time.