Materials

Electron microscope diffraction pattern
Electron microscope diffraction pattern

Materials science is the study of solid materials, such as metals, plastics, ceramics, glass, and semiconductors. When it first became an academic subject the study of materials, principally metallurgy, reflected its industrial origins and was primary an empirical, experimental discipline. In the postwar period it was transformed by greater knowledge of the underlying atomic structure of materials and by an influx of scientists whose background and training had been in physics. British scientists were at the forefront of this new understanding of the physics of materials, extending knowledge about their crystal structures and using electron microscopes to make direct observations of dislocation defects, first seen in 1956 at the University of Cambridge.This enabled scientists to relate their physical properties, such as strength, to what was happening inside the material. Todaymaterials science is concerned not just with understanding how materials work, but with using that knowledge to design new materials with extraordinary properties. These have included light, but strong composite materials, such as carbon fibre, developed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment; high temperature alloys designed not to melt in the incredible heat of jet engines; and materials with incredible electronic properties, such as the liquid crystals inside flat panel televisions, and the semiconductors used in computer components and light emitting diodes.