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Humanity’s Top Ten Problems for the Next 50 Years
    1. Energy
    2. Water
    3. Food
    4. Environment
    5. Poverty
    6. Terrorism & War
    7. Disease
    8. Education
    9. Democracy
    10. Population
So, you may be asking what that has to do with Materials Science and Engineering? Great question. Let’s first take a look at what “materials people” do.

Materials engineers and scientists study the interplay of different materials’ structure, performance, properties, and synthesis, otherwise known as the materials pyramid, with the goal of designing and producing new materials and new applications of materials that perform in predictable ways. Traditionally, a materials person would study one of the three main materials groups: ceramics, metals, or plastics. Then composites and semiconductors became important as their properties became more well understood. Today, these traditional lines are being crossed as materials scientists typically focus on areas of utilization, such as biomaterials, electronic materials, and optical materials to name a few.

Another new and important area of focus is in nanomaterials, where the traditional lines between materials are even more blurry. When working with nanomaterials on the order of a few thousand atoms or molecules, properties of materials become skewed such that bulk properties of metals, ceramics, or polymers are significantly less applicable.

The Career Resource Center for Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) offers a great introduction to the MSE field. Also, the US Department of Labor-Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) offers some good insight: Materials Engineers (including Ceramic Engineers and Metallurgical Engineers) and Chemists and Materials Scientists

How will materials people contribute to solutions to these problems? Lets start at the end:

10. Population: The actual growth of the population will be dependent on many things including climate, public policy, disease. As we’ll see, some of those can be helped with progress in materials science, but where are these people going to live? Are they going to build homes out of our natural resources, such as wood and metal? The destruction of rain forests and policy there will make wood unlikely. Metal is a possibility, but we do a relatively effective (though by no means perfect) job at recycling but plastics are rarely recycled effectively. Plastics research is currently being done Rutgers at the Center for Advanced Materials via Immiscible Polymer Processing where they have built an access bridge in Wharton State Forest. The possibilities for other structures are up to the imagination of engineers.

9.Democracy: Civic responsibility makes this an important topic for all people, not just materials engineers. But materials engineers are involved in many aspects of a free society. Professional materials engineers are often asked to give expert testimony in lawsuits. Materials engineers may be asked to develop materials in order to fulfill a requirement of a public policy. Certainly materials engineers are involved when it comes time to defend democracy in times of war.

8.Education: One thing that engineering students learn about is their duty of social responsibility. No matter what materials engineers decide to do, in a corporate, research, or academic setting and in their social life, they will be interacting with people in the public. Whether it is a formal educational outreach project, teaching in an academic environment, or teaching their children, engineers have a duty to educate others about the important work that they do. The faculty members in the CME department are engaged in an important outreach program through a grant form the NJ Commission on Higher Education Nanomaterials program.

7.Disease: Nanomaterials are going to be at the forefront of new targeted drug delviery techniques to fight disease in the futures. Attaching medicine to buckeyballs (C60) or carbon nanotubes is being researched. Also, using nanomagnetic metal spheres is an idea gaining in popularity. Both of these ideas are currently being investigated by CME professors.

6.Terrorism & War: Imagine a device that could scan bags before being put onto an airplane or before walking into a building and tell the security guards the exact chemical composition of its contents and warn of biological or chemical agents or incendiary devices in seconds. A CME professor is working on developing such a machine for the government. War is an unfortunate reality of our time, but in order to protect the brave men and women, new materials are necessary. Four of the CME professors are working with the US Army to provide lighter and more protective armor for the troops. In fact, there is a great deal of materials research being done in this area throughout the nation’s universities.

5.Poverty: How materials will help find a solution is perhaps difficult to define. This difficulty stems from the many faces that poverty assumes. Materials scientists can do their best in the other areas in order to keep the American economoy strong and at the forefront of technological development. If the American economy remains strong, poverty can be fought by supplying jobs for people. On a worldwide basis, if materials scientists do their part in providing for the worldwide problems, workers will be needed in all corners of the globe.

4.Environment: Alfalfa like all plants, absorbs nutrients and water from the soil it grows in. Did you know that it also has been shown to absorb gold from the soil which can them be centrifuged out to be useful to us? What if a plant could be used to absorb pollutants (lead for example) out of the ground or air? Materials engineers work with other types of scientists all the time in order to develop such novel concepts.

3.Food: As the population of the world grows, we will need to feed them. This food will have to be safe from terrorism. Carbon nanotubes are quickly emerging as a potential material to help sense bacteria, chemicals, and other dangers in the food we eat and the air we breathe.

2.Water: Continuing on this theme, these people also need a safe, affordable, and accessible water supply. Materials engineers will be responsible for developing next generation filters and purifying systems. Nanotechnological treatment of the water will be necessary towards making it potable and otherwise safe. In a similar vain to the food supply, the water supply will have to be constantly monitored for chemical and biological contamination.

1.Energy: Perhaps the most critical problem in the next 50 years will also be the one most affected by the materials industry. Researchers in materials will be developing the next fuel cells, solar cells, nuclear waste containers, batteries, supercapacitors, and hydrogen storage to name a few of the possibilities. Surely you won’t be surprised to find that RU CME professors have are currently investigating each of these topics.

As you have seen, materials scientists and engineers can deploy their talents among a wide range of topics through which to serve humanity. Perhaps some of these examples may be far-fetched, but it’s only limited by imagination. Where will your creativity and drive take you?

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