What is Materials Engineering and How to Use a Degree in It | The best engineering schools

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Budding inventors fascinated by chemistry and physics should consider pursuing a degree in materials engineering, sometimes called materials science. This field focuses on creating substances with useful properties, such as heat resistance, and sometimes involves improving the beneficial properties of existing substances.

What is Materials Engineering?

Elizabeth A. Holm, professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, describes materials engineering as “modern-day alchemy.” Materials engineers can produce materials with “amazing properties”, she says.

For example, the Gorilla Glass developed by Corning has extreme durability, but it can be light and thin enough to allow touch screens to work. Gorilla Glass is often used in cell phones and other personal electronic devices.

Holm notes that the production of Gorilla Glass would not be possible without the efforts of materials engineers. “All the things we can do with our devices are made possible by this material which looks like a piece of window glass, but it’s much, much, much more technical.”

Materials engineers also manufacture the exotic ingredients needed for quantum computers and produce the building materials needed for various aerospace vehicles ranging from commercial airplanes to private space shuttles, Holm adds.

When students ask her to define the term materials engineering, she always presents the following thought experiment: While taking a look at each object around them, students must consider the fact that each of these objects is composed of certain ingredients without which it would be impossible for these objects to function.

What do materials engineers do?

The role of a materials engineer, says Holm, is to determine what ingredients should be used to create a product and to “figure out how to make” that product with those particular ingredients. Materials engineers can work in almost any industry, ranging from cosmetics to home appliances, she explains.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for materials engineers in 2019 was $93,360.

Ting Gao, director of materials engineering at TE Connectivity, an industrial technology company, says innovation is constant in the field. She notes that although she spent 16 years of her career at TE Connectivity, she still discovers “something new” every day she goes to work.

“Whether developing materials that can withstand high voltage and high temperature in electric vehicles, or working on materials that make next-generation aircraft lighter and more durable, our teams are working to develop components and materials that are better for the environment, while delivering the quality and durability our customers expect,” Gao wrote in an email.

Gao says materials engineering has a huge influence on daily life, but the importance of the field is often overlooked. “Your average person may not realize it, but the performance of everything we interact with – from aircraft engines to medical devices to consumer electronics – depends on the engineering of materials that underpin it,” she wrote.

Brandon Sweeney — co-founder and head of materials research and development at Essentium, a company that makes industrial 3D printers and industrial materials — explains that materials engineers typically collaborate with other types of engineers.

For example, to create a mobile phone, the efforts of a materials engineer alone would not be enough because the phone cannot be manufactured without mechanical, electrical, software and design engineering.

However, “the actual device is made up of an array of metals, ceramics, polymers and composites that must all work in perfect unison to provide the required functionality,” said Sweeney, who earned a Ph.D. from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, wrote in an email. “A materials engineer can help make the right choices of materials and processing to maximize performance, while minimizing cost and failure.”

Sweeney notes that materials engineers are often at the forefront of technology development.

“Materials engineers typically solve big challenges to enable tomorrow’s technologies,” says Sweeney. “From the development of next-generation battery materials for energy storage, new membranes to produce clean water, sustainable plastics to eliminate pollution, semiconductors for electronics and technology infrastructure information, and all kinds of biomedical devices to improve health and quality of life, materials engineers have a major impact on our world for generations to come.”

Sweeney suggests that the field of materials engineering might be particularly appealing to someone intrigued by multiple academic disciplines.

“Personally, I was torn between chemistry, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering when I started university,” he says. “I could not accept that if I chose one of these disciplines, I would have to give up learning more about the others. As soon as I learned about materials science and engineering, I knew that it was the only degree I could get that wouldn’t let me regret choosing just one of the other disciplines.”


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