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Materials Science and Technology



Materials Science and Technology, the study of materials, nonmetallic as well as metallic, and how they can be adapted and fabricated to meet the needs of modern technology. Using the laboratory techniques and research tools of physics, chemistry, and metallurgy, scientists are finding new ways of using plastics, ceramics, and other nonmetals in applications formerly reserved for metals.



The rapid development of semiconductors (see Semiconductor) for the electronics industry, beginning in the early 1960s, gave materials science its first major impetus. Having discovered that nonmetallic materials such as silicon could be made to conduct electricity in ways that metals could not, scientists and engineers devised ways of fashioning thousands of tiny integrated circuits (see Integrated Circuit) on a small chip of silicon. This then made it possible to miniaturize the components of electronic devices such as computers.

In the late 1980s, materials science research was given renewed emphasis with the discovery of ceramics that display superconductivity at higher temperatures than metals do. If the temperature at which these new materials become superconductive can be raised high enough, new applications, including levitating trains and superfast computers, are possible.

Although the latest developments in materials science have tended to focus on electrical properties, mechanical properties are also of major, continuing importance. For the aircraft industry, for instance, scientists have been developing, and engineers testing, nonmetallic composite materials that are lighter, stronger, and easier to fabricate than the aluminum and other metals currently used to form the outer skin of aircraft.



Engineers must know how solid materials respond to external forces, such as tension, compression, torsion, bending, and shear. Solid materials respond to these forces by elastic deformation (that is, the material returns to its original size and form when the external force is lifted), permanent deformation, or fracture. Time-dependent effects of external forces are creep and fatigue, which are defined below.

Tension is a pulling force that acts in one direction; an example is the force in a cable holding a weight. Under tension, a material usually stretches, returning to its original length if the force does not exceed the material's elastic limit (see Elasticity). Under larger tensions, the material does not return completely to its original condition, and under even greater forces the material ruptures.

Compression is the decrease in volume that results from the application of pressure. When a material is subjected to a bending, shearing, or torsional (twisting) force, both tensile and compressive forces are simultaneously at work. When a rod is bent, for example, one side of it is stretched and subjected to a tensional force, and the other side is compressed.

Creep is a slowly progressing, permanent deformation that results from a steady force acting on a material. Materials subjected to high temperatures are especially susceptible to this deformation. The gradual loosening of bolts, the sagging of long-span cables, and the deformation of components of machines and engines are all noticeable examples of creep. In many cases the slow deformation stops because the force causing the creep is eliminated by the deformation itself. Creep extended over a long time eventually leads to the rupture of the material.

Fatigue can be defined as progressive fracture. It occurs when a mechanical part is subjected to a repeated or cyclic stress, such as vibration. Even when the maximum stress never exceeds the elastic limit, failure of the material can occur even after a short time. With some metals, such as titanium alloys, fatigue can be avoided by keeping the cyclic force below a certain level. No deformation is apparent during fatigue, but small localized cracks develop and propagate through the material until the remaining cross-sectional area cannot support the maximum stress of the cyclic force. Knowledge of tensile stress, elastic limits, and the resistance of materials to creep and fatigue are of basic importance in engineering. See also Metals.




Metals, group of chemical elements that exhibit all or most of the following physical qualities: they are solid at ordinary temperatures; opaque, except in extremely thin films; good electrical and thermal conductors (see Conductor, Electrical); lustrous when polished; and have a crystalline structure when in the solid state. Metals and nonmetals are separated in the periodic table by a diagonal line of elements. Elements to the left of this diagonal are metals, and elements to the right are nonmetals. Elements that make up this diagonal—boron, silicon, germanium, arsenic, antimony, tellurium, polonium, and astatine—have both metallic and nonmetallic properties. The common metallic elements include the following: aluminum, barium, beryllium, bismuth, cadmium, calcium, cerium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gold, iridium, iron, lead, lithium, magnesium, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, potassium, radium, rhodium, silver, sodium, tantalum, thallium, thorium, tin, titanium, tungsten, uranium, vanadium, and zinc. Metallic elements can combine with one another and with certain other elements, either as compounds, as solutions, or as intimate mixtures. A substance composed of two or more metals, or a substance composed of a metal and certain nonmetals such as carbon are called alloys. Alloys of mercury with other metallic elements are known as amalgams.

Within the general limits of the definition of a metal, the properties of metals vary widely. Most metals are grayish in color, but bismuth is pinkish, copper is red, and gold is yellow. Some metals display more than one color, a phenomenon called pleochroism. The melting points of metals range from about -39° C (about -38° F) for mercury to 3410° C (6170° F) for tungsten. Osmium and iridium (specific gravity 22.6) are the most dense metals, and lithium (specific gravity 0.53) is the least dense. The majority of metals crystallize in the cubic system, but some crystallize in the hexagonal and tetragonal systems (see Crystal). Bismuth has the lowest electrical conductivity of the metallic elements, and silver the highest at ordinary temperatures. (For conductivity at low temperatures, see Cryogenics; Superconductivity.) The conductivity of most metals can be lowered by alloying. All metals expand when heated and contract when cooled, but certain alloys, such as platinum and iridium alloys, have extremely low coefficients of expansion.



Metals are generally very strong and resistant to different types of stresses. Though there is considerable variation from one metal to the next, in general metals are marked by such properties as hardness, the resistance to surface deformation or abrasion; tensile strength, the resistance to breakage; elasticity, the ability to return to the original shape after deformation; malleability, the ability to be shaped by hammering; fatigue resistance, the ability to resist repeated stresses; and ductility, the ability to undergo deformation without breaking. See Materials Science and Technology.



Reactivity Series

Chemists can list metals according to how quickly they undergo chemical reactions, such as burning or dissolving in acids. The result is called a reactivity series. A metal at the top of the series generally reacts more vigorously than those that are below it in the series, and the more reactive metal can take their place (or displace them) in various compounds or in solution. In some reactions, however, such as reduction reactions, the order of reactivity is reversed.

Metals typically have positive valences in most of their compounds, which means they tend to donate electrons to the atoms to which they bond. Also, metals tend to form basic oxides. Typical nonmetallic elements, such as nitrogen, sulfur, and chlorine, have negative valences in most of their compounds—meaning they tend to accept electrons—and form acidic oxides (see Acids and Bases; Chemical Reaction).

Metals typically have low ionization potentials. This means that metals react easily by loss of electrons to form positive ions, or cations. Thus, metals can form salts (chlorides, sulfides, and carbonates, for example) by serving as reducing agents (electron donors).



In early attempts to explain the electronic configurations of the metals, scientists cited the characteristics of high thermal and electrical conductivity in support of a theory that metals consist of ionized atoms in which the free electrons form a homogeneous sea of negative charge. The electrostatic attraction between the positive metal ions and the free-moving and homogeneous sea of electrons was thought to be responsible for the bonds between the metal atoms. Free movement of the electrons was then held to be responsible for the high thermal and electrical conductivities. The principal objection to this theory was that the metals should then have higher specific heats than they do.

Metallic Bonding

Silver, a typical metal, consists of a regular array of silver atoms that have each lost an electron to form a silver ion. The negative electrons distribute themselves throughout the entire piece of metal and form nondirectional bonds between the positive silver ions. This arrangement, known as metallic bonding, accounts for the characteristic properties of metals: they are good electrical conductors because the electrons are free to move from one place to another, and they are malleable (as shown here) because the positive ions are held together by nondirectional forces.

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