What is MSE?

Materials Science: From the Stone Age to Silicon Valley


MS MajorMaterials Science and Engineering (MSE) is the discipline devoted to improving the quality of life on our planet through the discovery, design, development and deployment of advanced engineering materials.

Materials scientists and engineers seek to understand and control the basic structure of materials in order to make the products of technology stronger, lighter, brighter, safer, faster and better suited to human needs. Every part in technologies such as computers, electronics, cars, airplanes, electrical power generation, transmission and storage, energy-efficient buildings and devices, biomedical devices, consumer goods and health care, etc that define the modern life are carefully designed to optimize performance and cost effectiveness.


 The story of materials is an ancient one that began with humanity learning to shape rock and work metal. From that prehistoric beginning, the story of human advances in materials continues to unfold.


  • The development of steels permitted the building of skyscrapers and suspension bridges
  • The development of structural ceramics and nickel-based superalloys enabled ultra-high temperature jet propulsion engines
  • The development of age-hardened aluminium alloys and polymer composites enabled lightweight cars and airplanes
  • The advances in silicon based technology provided the foundation for electronics and computers
  • The development of thermoelectrics, solid oxide fuel cells, lithium ion batteries, gallium nitride based solid-state lighting, and silicon or other semiconductor based solar cells are enabling clean sources of energy generation and storage
  • New biomaterials have resulted in medical breakthroughs that save and improve lives.

These technological advances require accelerating the pace of economic development of advanced engineering materials to meet the demands of the society in the 21st century.

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The future of humanity depends on our wise use of materials


Most of the technological innovations that we associate with contemporary life have involved some major advance in materials processing or application. Automobiles, satellites, televisions, computers, and smartphones  all would not be possible without advances in polymers, ceramics, metals and semiconductors. New advances are being pioneered by MSE faculty.


For example:


  • The dire threat of climate change and dwindling fossil fuel resources have made the efficient use of energy a priority. MSE faculty and students work actively to manufacture light-weight engine components out of aluminum and magnesium and composites in order to boost fuel efficiency. They also pioneer improved high-temperature superalloy and ceramic composite materials that are important for efficient jet engines and electricity generation.



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To restore hearing to deaf people and sight to blind people prosthetic devices must make contact between the brain and a microphone or camera. MSE faculty and students work to find ways to interface silicon technology to neural tissue. This requires the development of coatings that are biocompatible and electrically conducting.

  • Moore's law states that the number of transistors on the latest computer chip doubles approximately every 18 months. This translates into more memory and faster, cheaper computers. But there is a limit to the density of transistors that can be placed on a computer chip using current technology. MSE faculty and students develop methods to spontaneously generate structures a few tens to hundreds of atoms across to form the basis for quantum computers. These next generation computers will exploit the physics of quantum confinement that dominate at that tiny scale.




  • Making components out of new materials often involves an extensive cycle of design, creation, testing and redesign. This process is costly and time consuming. MSE faculty and students develop computer simulation techniques to predict material behavior such as resistance to failure, stability, and high temperature formability. These computing advances speed the way toward the introduction of new materials in a safe and cost-effective manner.


There are many more examples of how MSE faculty and students at UM advance human capability and benefit society. These include work in developing conductive plastics, glassy metals, nano-structured materials, and materials for use in solar cells and solid-state lasers. Some of the recent highlights are captured under MSE News and Videos.


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The field of MSE is currently evolving at a more rapid pace than at any point in history. MSE is an interdisciplinary field and its evolution and societal impact, continuously occurs through collaborations between materials scientists/engineers and other disciplines such as biology, medicine, physics, chemistry and other areas of engineering and manufacturing.