Aspiring inventors who are fascinated by chemistry and physics should consider pursuing a degree in materials engineering, which is sometimes called materials science. This field focuses on creating substances with useful properties, such as heat resistance, and sometimes involves enhancing the beneficial properties of existing substances.
What Is Materials Engineering?
Elizabeth A. Holm, a 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 instance, the Gorilla Glass developed by Corning possesses extreme durability, yet it can be made lightweight enough and thin enough to allow touch screens to function. 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 that we can do with our devices are enabled by that material that looks like a piece of window glass, but it’s way, way, way more engineered.”
Materials engineers also make the exotic ingredients necessary for quantum computers, and they produce the construction 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 glancing at every object that surrounds them, students should consider the fact that every one of those objects is made of certain ingredients without which it would be impossible for those objects to function.
What Do Materials Engineers Do?
The role of a materials engineer, Holm says, is to figure out 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 nearly any industry, ranging from cosmetics to appliances, she explains.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary among 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 has spent 16 years of her career at TE Connectivity, she still is introduced to “something new” every day that she goes to work.
“Whether it’s developing materials that can sustain high voltage and high temperature in electric vehicles, or working on materials that make next-generation aircraft lighter and more sustainable, our teams work to develop components and materials that are better for the environment, while still providing the quality and durability that our customers expect,” Gao wrote in an email.
Gao says that materials engineering has an enormous influence on everyday life, but the field’s importance often goes unrecognized. “Your average person might not realize it, but the performance of everything we interact with — from airplane engines, to medical devices, to consumer electronics — depends on the material engineering behind it,” she wrote.
Brandon Sweeney — a co-founder and head of research and development for materials at Essentium, a company that makes industrial 3D-printers and industrial materials — says materials engineers typically collaborate with other kinds of engineers.
For example, in order to create a cellphone, the efforts of a materials engineer alone would not be sufficient since the phone cannot be made without mechanical, electrical, software and design engineering.
However, “the actual device is made of a collection of metals, ceramics, polymers, and composites that all have to work in perfect unison to provide the required functionality,” Sweeney, who received 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 to make the right material and processing choices to maximize performance, while minimizing cost and failures.”
Sweeney notes that materials engineers are often at the forefront of technology development.
“Materials engineers are typically solving grand challenges for enabling tomorrow’s technologies,” Sweeney says. “From developing next generation battery materials for energy storage, novel membranes for producing clean water, sustainable plastics to eliminate pollution, semiconductors for electronics and information technology infrastructure, and all sorts of biomedical devices to improve health and quality of life, materials engineers are having a major impact on our world for generations to come.”
Sweeney suggests that the field of materials engineering might be particularly appealing for someone intrigued by multiple academic disciplines.
“I personally was torn between chemistry, electrical and mechanical engineering when I started college,” he says. “I couldn’t accept that if I picked one of those disciplines, that I would have to let go of 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 leave me regretting having chosen just one of the other disciplines.”
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What Materials Engineering Is and How to Use a Degree in This Field originally appeared on usnews.com
Correction 07/22/20: A previous version of this article included an inaccurate description of TE Connectivity.