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Understanding Material Science in Chemical Engineering

By HWA | Publish On: July 23, 2011 | Posted In:

Material Science in Chemical Engineering

Life in the 21st century is every dependant on an unlimited variety of advanced materials. In our consumptive world, it is easy to take for granted the macro, micro and nanoscopic building blocks that comprise many any item ever produced. We are spoiled by the technology that adds convenience to our lives, such as microwave ovens, laptop computers, digital cell phones and improved modes of transportation. However, we rarely take time to think about and appreciate the materialsthat constitute these modern engineering feats.

The term material may be broadly defined as any solid-state component or device that may be used to address a current or future societal need. For instance, simple building materials such as nails, wood, coatings, etc address our need for shelter. Other more intangible materials such as nanodevices may not yet be widely proven for particular applications, but will be essential for the future needs of our civilization. Although the above definition includes solid nanostructural building blocks that assemble to form larger materials, it excludes complex liquid compounds such as crude oil, which may be more properly considered a precursor for materials.

There is a sharp distinction between the various classes of materials that we see today. For example: a thin film is defined as having a film of thickness less than 1μm; however, if the thickness drops below 100nm, the dimensions may be more accurately classified within the nanoscale regime. Likewise, liquid crystals are best described as having properties intermediate between amorphous and crystalline phases, and hybrid composite materials involve both inorganic and organic components.

The broadly defined discipline of materials chemistry is focused on understanding the relationships between the arrangements of atoms, ions, or molecules comprising a material and its overall bulk structural/physical properties. By this designation, common disciplines such as polymer, solid-state and surface chemistry would all be placed within the scope of materials chemistry. This broad field consists of studying the structures/properties of existing materials, synthesizing and characterizing new materials and its overall bulk structural/physical properties. By this designation, common disciples such as polymer, solid-state and surface chemistry would all be placed within the scope of materials chemistry. This broad field consists of studyingthe structures/properties of existing materials, synthesizingand characterizing new materials and using advanced computational techniques to predict structures and properties of materials that have not yet been realized.

Although the study of materials chemistry is a relatively new entry in chemistry, it has always been an important part of chemistry. By most accounts, Neolithic man (10000 – 300) BC was the first to realize that certain materials such as limestone, wood, shells and clay were most easily shaped into materials used as utensils, tools and weaponry.

Applications for metallic materials date back to the Chalcolithic age (4000 – 1500) BC where copper was used for a variety of uses.

Metal alloys were first used in the Bronze age (1400 – 0) BC, where discovery that doping copper with other compounds drastically altered the physical properties of the material.

The Iron age (1000 – 1950) AD first brought about applications for iron based materials. Since the earth’s crust contains significantly more iron than copper, the latter was abandoned for material applications.

Although building and structural materials such as ceramics, glasses and asphalt have not dramatically changed since their invention, the world of electronics has undergone rapid changes. Many new architectures for advanced material design are surely yet undiscovered, as scientists are now attempting to mimic the profound structural order existing in living creatures and plant life, which is evident as one delves into their microscopic regimes.

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