Materials science is an applied science concerned with the relationship between the structure and properties of materials. Chemists who work in the field study how different combinations of molecules and materials result in different properties. They use this knowledge to synthesize new materials with special properties. Eduardo Kamenetzky, a senior research scientist at Cytec Industries, explains, "The central concept of materials science is relating the microstructure of a material to the properties you want it to have. By working with the microstructure, you can tailor the central properties of that material." Materials scientists are generally employed by industry or in laboratories where the focus is on developing product-related technologies. But, not all ideas become products and, as a result, possessing the quality of persistence is helpful in this field. "Persistence is important," says Bob Haddon at AT&T Bell Laboratories. "You have to have a high tolerance for frustration because 99% of your experiments do not work." Barry Speronello, an engineering fellow at Englehard Corporation, agrees, "There are a dozen bad ideas for each fair idea, and a dozen fair ideas for each good idea. You sort out which ideas are worth pursuing. Most ideas break down when you look at the economics." But when an idea succeeds, it's very gratifying. This is often what materials scientists say they enjoy most about their work -- seeing an idea through from the basic microstructure research to the manufacture and commercialization of a product made of the developed material.
Materials science is one of the hottest career areas in science, but to think of it as a single career is misleading. Perhaps one reason for its popularity is that it unites applications from many scientific disciplines that contribute to the development of new materials. Chemists play a predominant role in materials science because chemistry provides information about the structure and composition of materials as well as the processes to apply and synthesize them. Materials science overlaps to a large extent with polymer science resulting in many new polymeric materials being developed in this century. Materials scientists are employed by companies whose products are made of metals, ceramics, and rubber, for example; they work in the coatings (developing new varieties of paint) and biologics industries (designing materials that are compatible with human tissues for prosthetics and implants). Other applications of materials science include studies of superconducting materials, graphite materials, integrated-circuit chips, and fuel cells. Materials science is so interdisciplinary that preparation in a number of related areas is important. "It is good to have a specialization," says Darrel Tenney, chief of the Materials Division at NASA's Langley Research Center. "But you also need to be cross-trained in a related discipline. This has been important for many years, but it is becoming critical." Good verbal and written communication skills are required since most materials scientists work in teams with people in other disciplines.
Many materials scientists say they were drawn to the field because they are naturally curious and always wanted to know what things were made of. "In industry, though, it is not just a question of being curious, but what you are being curious about and how it will benefit the company you work for," says Bruce Scott, manager of chemistry and materials science at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center. The field is becoming more business-driven all the time. "When I started in pre-ceramic polymers in the 1980s, people were making pre-ceramic polymers just to make them," says Gregg Zank, a senior research specialist at Dow Corning. "Now, research is much more focused so we look for specific functionalities and applications in materials." Scott says, "Aside from universities and some government labs, there are few places that still do exploratory research." Because the focus is on business, materials scientists say the emphasis of their work is on how to make materials for the marketplace more economically. Some materials scientists are employed by academia and government; however, most are employed by industry.
The strong link of materials science to products in the marketplace means that more job opportunities are to be found in this area than in other areas of science, resulting in a positive future job outlook. Materials science's progress is pointing the way toward improved personal economic health and a better way of life. Applications for new materials and modifications of existing materials are expected to keep the demand for trained materials scientists growing. A materials scientist's background is varied. Although a materials science degree may open many doors, it may be safer for students to avoid early specialization in their course work. Materials scientists indicate that students should learn the basic sciences. This broad base is often obtained through degrees in physics, engineering, or chemistry. Once armed with a broad base of scientific knowledge, one can focus on more specific skills that are or will be in demand by industry.
Leah Ann Peavey, a group leader for product development, works for synthetic rubber manufacturer DSM Copolymer, Inc. "Our customers do not sell raw rubber," she explains. "They take the base rubber and compound it, turning it into a usable material." This means mixing the raw rubber with various other materials such as carbon black, extender oil, curatives, and fillers. "Materials science," she says, "is basically the processing of different compounds."
The material Peavey works most closely with is ethylene-propylene-diene terpolymer, or EPDM, which is used in roofing materials and in the auto industry for sealing components, rubber gaskets, and hoses. "Once you develop the formulation for a basic rubber polymer, you then have to examine how that polymer will perform as a product," she says. Factors such as molecular weight, molecular weight distribution, and ethylene content all make a difference in how the material can be processed.
"Another group in research and development handles polymerization. They make all sorts of variations in the base polymer," she says. "It's my job to assess the effect these variations will have on product performance." Part of this work includes evaluating how the material will process in machinery such as extruders and injection molders as well as in different curing applications like microwave or hot-air ovens. With her knowledge of polymer processing, Peavey is often the customer's resource for advice on how to formulate and process EPDM for a specific application.
"I always tinkered as a child," says Barry Speronello, an engineering fellow at Englehard Corporation. "I studied ceramic science and engineering. Now I work with catalysts. A person with materials science training can do a lot in catalysis, more than I was aware. Catalytic materials are overwhelmingly ceramic," he says.
"I really like the breadth of activities in which I get to participate. Some chemists work within a very narrow range, but with greater depth than I will ever have. I think I'm well suited for what I do because I like to take as broad a perspective as possible."
In his job, Speronello says he can conceive of a concept and work on that concept completely through commercial sales. "I determine the practicality of the concept and work with the manufacturing group to develop a manufacturing process. I work with customers and let them know how the product will enable them to do what they need to do better, faster, and cheaper. This way, I have the opportunity to shepherd my original conception through its useful life."
The electronics industry relies on highly specialized materials to make the components it uses in telephones, computers, and other electronic devices. Silicon is a key material in most of these components.
Bruce Scott, manager of chemistry and materials science at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center, has spent part of his career studying the chemistry of deposition of very thin films of silicon. As a result of these studies, Scott has improved the chemical process for the fabrication of devices that are at the core of IBM's business.
Scott explains that the films are made by allowing monosilane gas to decompose on a substrate, usually also composed of a crystal form of silicon. "We spent a lot of time researching the gas phase and surface reactions that lead to the deposition of films," Scott says. "Traditionally, films are deposited at high temperatures, near 1000 C, from chlorosilanes. We studied these processes in detail to see if the same films could be formed at a lower temperature. Low-temperature deposition is important because films with sharp electrical characteristics can be made, leading to very high-speed computer circuits. This emphasis led to the development of a new process for the lower-temperature deposition of silicon films. Because we understood the chemistry and how the gas behaves, we were able to develop a completely new process technology that is now being used to manufacture devices. It is a good example of the direct transfer of basic science results to technology."
Gregg Zank, a senior research specialist in the advanced ceramics program at Dow Corning, has a hand in every stage of making a ceramic part. "We make molecular materials, pre-ceramic polymers, and ceramic parts for a wide range of applications," he says. One aspect of his job is to design pre-ceramic polymers that can be used in conjunction with other materials to make the highest quality and most cost-effective part. "An important aspect of this work is being able to relate the chemistry in the polymer to how it will affect the properties of the ceramic," he says.
"There is a real emphasis today on making ceramic parts that are cheaper and easier to manufacture," he says. Zank cites, as an example, parts that have a certain shape or detail that is vital to their function. "These are parts that are not just tubes but that need to have grooves and flanges on them. Being able to build a ceramic part in this kind of detail before it is sintered is the most economical way to make it," he says.
To make a ceramic part, a materials scientist blends the polymer with a ceramic powder, and this blended material is then molded in a die that incorporates the desired detail incorporate the details.
One of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) functions is to make sure that lightweight high-performance materials are available for today's aircraft needs. Darrel Tenney, chief of the Materials Division at NASA's Langley Research Center, says, "We trade off and optimize materials on the basis of an aircraft's needs--how many passengers it will carry, how many miles it needs to go, and what stresses it will endure. Research is focused on development of performance polymer matrix composites, light alloys, and refractory matrix composites."
But Tenney's role is not just to look at the materials needs for today. The most exciting part of his work is to evaluate the advanced technology that may be important in the future. One new area is the field of computational materials. Taking their cue from the mathematical modeling used in the pharmaceutical industry to understand molecules and how they interact with the body, researchers are using computers to guide their research in high-molecular-weight polymers. "We will be making materials by design," he says, "deciding ahead of time what characteristics we want the material to have and then going into the lab to make that material." Tenney says computational skills combined with chemistry promises tremendous opportunity for the future.
Bob Haddon develops new electronic materials at AT&T Bell Laboratories. He says that one of the most exciting moments in his career was his 1991 discovery of superconductivity in alkali metal C60, or buckminsterfullerene. "When you combine C60 with an alkali metal, it becomes a superconductor," he explains. Haddon did not expect AT&T to find an application for his discovery for a while, so he focused much of his research on finding out what the properties of C60 can teach us about superconductivity in general. "Understanding the materials already available gives us information about the materials we hope to make in the future," he says.
The science of electronic materials has been a very successful field, according to Haddon. "Silicon is almost a nightmare for people working on new electronic materials because it is so good." Still, he believes it is an exciting time to explore the potential of materials other than silicon. "Organics have not had a large penetration into the market. They've always been something of a sidelight in the industry. A breakthrough in the science of organics will prove their worth in the marketplace." Haddon says that at Bell Labs, there is good support for basic research. "The hope is that there will be an application for every piece of basic research."
Materials science covers a broad range of sciences. Materials scientists do fundamental research on the chemical properties of materials, develop new materials, and modify formulations of existing materials to suit new applications.
Some materials scientists say one of the most satisfying aspects of their work is being involved in a project from the materials' initial conception through its manufacture and marketing. Much of their work is performed in the lab, but they also work with engineers and processing specialists in pilot plants or manufacturing facilities. After a material is sold, materials scientists often help customers tailor the material to suit their needs.
Most materials scientists are employed in industry where products are made; some are employed by government and academia. Many work in the electronic and computer industry.
Most materials scientists describe themselves as curiosity-driven. They say they have always been interested in knowing what things are made of, such as the plastic in the cup they are drinking from or the components of a composite material. They also express a strong interest in engineering and structures. Most describe themselves as generalists; some say they feel their knowledge base is "a mile wide, but an inch deep."
The materials science field is made up of people with various educational backgrounds. Some companies are more interested in hiring Ph.D. candidates. However, most projects in materials science are team efforts, and a team can include technicians, engineers, physicists, and materials scientists with B.S. or M.S. degrees, as well as Ph.D. chemists. Students are encouraged to give thoughtful consideration to the type of work they want to do and then investigate the level of education that is required. There are about 20 degree programs in materials science in the United States, but most materials scientists recommend training in a more specific discipline, such as inorganic synthesis and organic chemistry, or specific materials science such as ceramic engineering. They advise, however, against specializing too soon. In addition to their scientific training, materials scientists stress the importance of understanding, and the ability to apply basic statistical concepts.
Materials scientists say the current job outlook continues to be good because the demand for new materials and modifications of existing materials is ongoing. Some caution, however, that materials science may become a victim of its own success. Since much of the technology developed in the past decade was so good, the growth curve for the future will flatten out. Certain areas within materials science, such as electronics, are already seeing flattening in employment growth.
To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.
Materials science spans so many different disciplines that people who work in this field tend to be allied with the associations or university laboratories that share their specialization. Students are urged to contact associations for ceramic manufacturers, synthetic rubber makers, paints and coatings manufacturers, and plastics makers to find out more about each of these areas and the opportunities that exist for materials chemists in each of them.
Materials science jobs are concentrated in industry. Because of this, students investigate the corporate environment early on in their scientific career to determine if this work atmosphere suits them. Students also need to focus on their career goals to determine if they prefer a more specialized field, or whether the breadth and interdisciplinary nature of materials science will satisfy them.