Last modified on 12 February 2011, at 00:18

Materials Science/Introduction

IntroductionEdit

Different materials have different properties. Think of the difference between the engine of a car and its wheels; the metal in a wire and its insulator. All these objects can only be made out of materials that have properties suited to their application. Materials science is the study of the properties of materials. It focuses on the factors that make one material different from another. Understandably, there are many such factors, some obvious and some subtle. Examples of these factors might include elemental composition, arrangement, bonding, impurities, surface structure, length scale and so on. The ability to understand the relationships between these factors and the properties of a material has been crucial to most of mankind's technological breakthroughs. Today, materials science is a multidisciplinary subject. It draws upon just about every field of science and engineering, providing insights for other researchers to use in their field.

This book is aimed at those studying materials science at the undergraduate level in university whether as their major field or as a single module of a related engineering course.

Materials science is an interdisciplinary field involving the properties of matter and its applications to various areas of science and engineering. It includes elements of applied physics and chemistry, as well as chemical, mechanical, civil and electrical engineering. With significant media attention to nanoscience and nanotechnology in the recent years, materials science has been propelled to the forefront at many universities, sometimes controversially.

The choice material of a given era is often its defining point: the stone age, Bronze Age, and steel age are examples. Materials science is one of the oldest forms of engineering and applied science. Modern materials science evolved directly from metallurgy, which itself evolved from mining. A major breakthrough in the understanding of materials occurred in the late 19th century, when Willard Gibbs demonstrated that thermodynamic properties relating to atomic structure in various phases are related to the physical properties of the material. Important elements of modern materials science are a product of the space race: the understanding and engineering of the metallic alloys and other materials that went into the construction of space vehicles was one of the enablers of space exploration. Materials science has driven, and been driven by, the development of revolutionary technologies such as plastics, semiconductors, and biomaterials.

Before the 1960s (and in some cases decades after), many materials science departments were named metallurgy departments, from a 19th and early 20th century emphasis on metals. The field has since broadened to include every class of materials, including: ceramics, polymers, semiconductors, magnetic materials, medical implant materials and biological materials.

In materials science, rather than haphazardly looking for and discovering materials and exploiting their properties, one instead aims to understand materials fundamentally so that new materials with the desired properties can be created.

The basis of all materials science involves relating the desired properties and relative performance of a material in a certain application to the structure of the atoms and phases in that material through characterization. The major determinants of the structure of a material and thus of its properties are its constituent chemical elements and the way in which it has been processed into its final form. These, taken together and related through the laws of thermodynamics, govern the material’s microstructure, and thus its properties.

An old adage in materials science says: "materials are like people; it is the defects that make them interesting". The manufacture of a perfect crystal of a material is physically impossible. Instead materials scientists manipulate the defects in crystalline materials such as precipitates, grain boundaries (Hall-Petch relationship), interstitial atoms, vacancies or substitutional atoms, creating a material with the desired properties.

Not all materials have a regular crystal structure. Polymers display varying degrees of crystallinity. Glasses, some ceramics, and many natural materials are amorphous, not possessing any long-range order in their atomic arrangements. These materials are much harder to engineer than crystalline materials. Polymers are a mixed case, and their study commonly combines elements of chemical and statistical thermodynamics to give thermodynamical, rather than mechanical descriptions of physical properties.

In addition to industrial interest, materials science has gradually developed into a field which provides tests for condensed matter or solid state theories. New physics emerges because of the diverse new material properties needed to be explained.

Radical materials advances can drive the creation of new products or even new industries, but stable industries also employ materials scientists to make incremental improvements and troubleshoot issues with currently used materials. Industrial applications of materials science include materials design, cost-benefit tradeoffs in industrial production of materials, processing techniques (casting, rolling, welding, ion implantation, crystal growth, thin-film deposition, sintering, glassblowing, etc.), and analytical techniques (characterization techniques such as electron microscopy, x-ray diffraction, calorimetry, nuclear microscopy (HEFIB), Rutherford backscattering, neutron diffraction, etc.).

Besides material characterisation, the material scientist/engineer also deals with the extraction of materials and their conversion into useful forms. Thus ingot casting, foundry techniques, blast furnace extraction, electrolytic extraction all are part of the required knowledge of a materials scientist/engineer. Often the presence, absence or variation of minute quantities of secondary elements and compounds in a bulk material will have a great impact on the final properties of the materials produced, for instance, steels are classified based on 1/10th and 1/100 weight percentages of the carbon and other alloying elements they contain. Thus, the extraction and purification techniques employed in the extraction of iron in the blast furnace will have an impact of the quality of steel that may be produced.

The overlap between physics and materials science has led to the offshoot field of materials physics, which is concerned with the physical properties of materials. The approach is generally more macroscopic and applied than in condensed matter physics. See the important publications in materials physics for more details on this field of study.

Alloys of metals is an important and significant part of materials science. Of all the metallic alloys in use today, the alloys of iron (steel, stainless steel, cast iron, tool steel, alloy steels) make up the largest proportion both by quantity and commercial value. Iron alloyed with various weight percentages of carbon gives low, mid and high carbon steels. For the steels, the hardness and tensile strength of the steel is directly related to the amount of carbon present, while increasing carbon levels lead to lower ductility and toughness. The addition of silicon and graphitization will produce cast irons (although some cast irons are made precisely with no graphitization). The addition of chromium, nickel and molybdenum to carbon steels (more than 10%) gives us stainless steels.

Other significant metallic alloys are those of aluminium, titanium, copper and magnesium. Copper alloys have been know for a long time (during the Bronze Age), while the alloys of the other three metals have been relatively recently developed, due to the chemical reactivity of these metals and the resultant difficulty in their extraction which wasn't accomplished (electrolytically) until recently. The alloys of aluminium, titanium and magnesium are also known and valued for their high strength to weight ratios and, in the case of magnesium, their ability to provide electromagnetic shielding. These materials find special applications where high strength-weight ratios are desired (aero-space industry).

Other than metals, polymers and ceramics are also an important part of material science. Polymers are the raw materials (the resins) used to make what we commonly call plastics. Plastics are actually the final product after many polymers and additives have been processed and shaped into a final shape and form. Polymers that have been around and are in current widespread use include polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl-chloride, polystyrene, nylons, polyesters, acrylics, polyurethane, polycarbonates. Plastics are generally classified as "commodity", "specialty" and "engineering" plastics.

PVC is a commodity plastic, it is widely used, low cost and annual quantities are huge. It lends itself to an incredible array of applications, from faux leather to electrical insulation to cabling to packaging and vessels. Its fabrication and processing are simple and well-established. The versatility of PVC is due to the wide range of additives that it accepts. Additives in polymer science refers to the chemicals and compounds added to the polymer base to modify its physical and material properties.

Polycarbonate would be normally considered an engineering plastic (other examples include PEEK, ABS). Engineering plastics are valued for their superior strengths and other special material properties. They are usually not used for disposable applications, unlike commodity plastics.

Specialty plastics are really the materials with unique characteristics, such as ultrahigh strength, electrical conductivity, electro-florescence, high thermal stability, etc.

It should be noted here that the dividing line between the various types of plastics is not based on material but rather their properties and applications. For instance, polypropylene (PP) is a cheap, slippery polymer commonly used to make disposable shopping bags and trash bags. It is commodity. But a variety of PP called Ultra-high Molecular Weight Polypropylene (UHMWPE) is an engineering plastic which is used extensively as the glide rails for industrial equipment.

Another application of material science in industry is the making of composite materials. Composite materials are structured materials composed of at least two different macroscopic phases. An example would be steel-reinforced concrete. Also, take a look at the plastic casing of your telly set, cell-phone: these plastic casings are usually a composite made up of a thermoplastic matrix such as acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) in which calcium carbonate chalk, talc, glass fibres or carbon fibres have been added (dispersants) for added strength, bulk, or electro-static dispersion.