Materials Science

This section gives information about the interdisciplinary nature of Materials Science.

What is Materials Science?

In the minds of most people, science is "Physics", Chemistry" and "Biology" but these, and other divisions, are man-made: nature does not recognise these divisions. Imagine that you are lifting a weight: your arm is acting as a lever to apply a force (Physics); this movement is actuated by muscle fibres being shortened (Biology) and the energy to perform this comes from the process of respiration in each cell (Chemistry).

Materials Science is an interdisciplinary subject that makes use of knowledge from Chemistry, Engineering, Physics and, increasingly, Biology and Medicine, but which has its own special character. There are few areas of research and development that combine such a wide knowledge base and put it to such diverse practical and commercial use. Materials research is increasingly important world-wide as an engine for economic prosperity, and the development and application of new or improved materials are key factors enabling the UK to remain internationally competitive. Industry depends critically on employing graduates with the right skills and on innovation developed in collaboration with universities.

The simplest description of what Materials Science covers is "the science of how materials behave at all scales from electrons to supertankers". We are interested in improving the performance of existing materials and in designing and fabricating new, higher performance materials that nature forgot to invent! A material is to us any solid from which we can make something useful; from sand on the beach (computer chips) to nickel (the turbine blades in jet engines) and carbon fibres (in composites that protect the drivers of Formula 1 racing cars).

The subject appeals to those who do not wish to be limited to a single traditional science subject, who enjoy an interdisciplinary approach and who want to apply their science, both experimental and theoretical, to real and important problems in engineering and technology. Materials is an outward-looking subject that can be studied in effective combination with a wide range of subjects.

Developments in the physics and chemistry of materials take place alongside those in manufacturing processes and engineering design; all these areas are the domain of the materials scientist. By manipulating and designing materials at the atomic scale, a new branch in the study of materials has opened up, that of nanotechnology. This new branch of science is revealing more secrets about the structure of matter and allowing major advances to be made in areas such as electronics, engineering, computing and medicine.

Modern materials are being developed which may look like their counterparts of 50 or 100 years ago, but are in fact greatly modified - often at the atomic scale - to provide vastly superior properties, such as strength, toughness, wear and corrosion resistance. Equally, completely new materials such as carbon nanotubes are also being developed: materials that have many exciting applications, not least in the development of quantum computing.

The scope of Materials Science is truly vast, covering almost all areas of science. The skills and knowledge of the Materials Scientist are essential for any country which desires to foster industries that are at the forefront of technology. If you want a fascinating and exciting degree course and career, Materials Science is for you.

Links to three further articles on this topic can be found below:

Article: (Prof. Peter Goodhew: Liverpool):

Article: (Prof. Adrian Sutton: Oxford):

Brochure: Studying Materials Science at Oxford University: