Materials In Today's World

Why Study Materials?

Picadilly circus in London. Road junction with a building featuring large curved screens on the corner
Piccadilly Circus
Credit: Jimmy Baikovicius via Wikimedia Commons

When materials scientist and narrator of The Secret Life of Materials videos (used in this course), Mark Miodownik, opens up the video on metal, he is at Piccadilly Circus in London, England. He marvels at how strange but wonderful it is that everything around him is man-made. This is not unique to London. A visit to the center of New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Dubai, Paris, or any other 21st-century modern city would yield a similar situation. It might seem like a cliché but we are surrounded by materials. And with the range of materials available - whether it be in our professional or personal lives - we are constantly being asked to make choices about materials.

Something as routine and everyday as purchasing carbonated beverages is an example where materials choice could come into play. As we will see in the textbook, carbonated beverages can be purchased in glass, metal, or plastic containers. What factors drive manufacturers of carbonated beverages to offer their products in a range of different materials? What are the advantages and disadvantages when comparing the different materials choices for carbonated beverage containers? When selecting a material for a product there are many factors that must be taken into account, including properties, performance, and lifetime of the material; availability of raw materials; costs and energy usage in all steps of the processing; sustainability; waste disposal, etc.

Carbonated beverages packaged in cans, plastic bottles, and glass bottles.
An assortment of carbonated beverages in glass, plastic, and metal containers.
Credit: Francois Schnell via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Why is it important for you to understand materials? Products, devices, and components that you purchase and use are all made of materials. To select appropriate materials, and processing techniques for specific applications, you must have knowledge of the material properties and understand how the structure affects the material properties.

Throughout history, material advancement has gone hand-in-hand with societal advancements. The Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age were all significant materials and societal periods in humankind's development. One question I would pose to you: what is today's materials age? Is it the polymer age? Or perhaps we have already advanced past that one. Are we in the age of silicon, i.e., the electronic materials age? Or, are we possibly moving into a nanomaterials age? A biomaterials age? Some might suggest that we moved into the information age or the digital age. In any of these cases, it is clear that the materials and the capability of the materials underlying these technologies are integral to the current and future capabilities in these areas.

Now let us explore how deep-seated materials are in our culture by looking back at materials in antiquity.