From golf clubs and athletic equipment to aircraft and farm machinery, virtually every mass-produced product today gets its start in a engineer’s lab — more specifically, with a materials engineer. Materials engineers research the potential materials that will be incorporated into the item, perform the necessary tests to determine their viability and assess the overall environmental impact of the production process. Along the way, they also handle various project management functions and oversee the work of collaborators.
The responsibilities of materials engineers require competency across technical and managerial domains. By earning an online Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) from the University of California, Riverside (UCR), you can develop this multifaceted expertise, with a particular focus on nanomaterials. The MSE offers a variety of specialization tracks, including one in nanotechnology that can prepare you for an advanced career in materials engineering.
What do materials engineers do?
At a high level, materials engineers endeavor to meet the chemical, electrical, mechanical, environmental and financial requirements of a project by identifying the right materials. They will create and test a potentially wide range of materials, including plastics, polymers, metals, alloys, semiconductors, ceramics, composites and various naturally occurring substances. Their work might entail producing entirely new custom materials or selecting and repurposing existing materials.
Engineers who work predominantly with one category of materials may have titles that reflect their specialization, such as ceramics engineer or semiconductor engineer. Materials engineering is a critical component of numerous industries, but it is often most closely associated with sectors such as aerospace, defense, transportation and electronics. It intersects with other engineering fields including chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering.
Some of the more granular responsibilities of a materials engineer might include:
- Designing the testing procedures and processing guidelines for specific materials.
- Determining how materials perform and deteriorate under different conditions.
- Identifying the causes of material failures and formulating possible solutions and workarounds.
- Assessing how a material’s processing and production will impact the environment.
- Overseeing the work of colleagues, including technologists, scientists and other engineers.
- Performing computer simulations to see how different materials might hold up and how their compositions might be optimized for the project at hand.
- Studying the makeup of materials at the atomic level to understand their properties and potentially create new nanomaterials.
Engineers specializing in the latter function are usually known as nanoengineers. These engineers focus on microscopic materials and applications — the “nano” in the their title refers to a measurement that is one-billionth the size of the metric unit in question. To see how small that really is, consider that a human hair is 40,000 nanometers wide.
Up close with nanomaterials engineering
A materials engineer dedicated to nanomaterials might research, develop and test the pivotal microscopic substances that already go into many everyday products, including laundry detergents, kitchen sink filters, dishwashing liquids, sporting equipment and catalytic converters. Depending on the application, nanomaterials might:
- Add strength and flexible to a product: Tennis rackets and golf balls benefit from carbon nanotubes that provide extra support without adding significant weight or additional exposure to breakage. Athletic shoes are another application along these lines, with increased durability and flexibility from the presence of embedded nanomaterials.
- Help with particle filtration and capture: Nanomaterials can be readily fashioned into cage-like structures that excel at capturing tiny particles, such as those that come off when clothes are washed or something is being poured down a drain. Highly polluted industrial wastewater is sometimes sent through filters containing nanomaterial silicates.
- Absorb and destroy harmful substances: Household products such as adhesive bandages and sunscreen may contain nanomaterials, which help with their antiseptic and anti-UV properties, respectively. Nanoparticles are also being experimented with in cancer treatment, since they may be irradiated to destroy cancerous cells.
How to become a materials engineer or nanoengineer
The path to becoming a materials engineer (or nanoengineer) usually starts with earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering or a related field. Coursework spanning engineering, physics and chemistry is especially important. In addition, it is important for any aspiring engineer to have practical experience gained through internships and cooperative programs.
A master’s degree such as the online UCR MSE can provide an advantage in the form of broader knowledge and experience, which can translate into a better chance to land senior, managerial and research-oriented roles. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has estimated that engineers with a master’s degree have median wages up to 13% higher than their counterparts who have only a bachelor’s.
The online MSE at UCR includes four general requirements along with another four concentration-specific classes. The latter courses are Thermodynamic Foundations of Materials, Crystal Structure and Bonding, Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and Introduction to Microelectromechanical Systems. Between them, they provide comprehensive background on current practices in nanotechnology. Online MSE students complete the program of study with a sequence of four 1-credit capstone courses, which take the place of a residency.
Graduates of the MSE track have gone on to become materials engineers, materials scientists, medical scientists and chemists, among other roles. These positions are generally well-paying, with compensation above the national median. The BLS has provided the following 2017 median pay figures:
- Materials engineer: $94,610
- Medical scientist: $82,090
- Chemists and materials scientists: $76,280
Learn more about the online MSE at UCR
The UCR MSE is fully online, making it an ideal fit for working professionals who want a rigorous yet flexible program that can fit into their busy schedules. The credential is exactly the same as one you would earn from on-campus instruction.
To learn more about earning your online engineering degree, visit the main MSE page. You can also take a look at the nanotechnology page for more info on this specialization.