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There are basically three categories in which metallurgical engineers work. Extractive metallurgists, also known as chemical metallurgists, are concerned with the methods used to separate metals from ores, and the reclamation of materials from solid wastes for recycling. As part of their responsibilities, they may supervise and control concentrating and refining processes in commercial mining operations. They may determine the methods used to concentrate the ore by separating minerals from dirt, rock, and other unwanted materials. Many of these separation methods are performed at a treatment plant or refinery. There the extractive metallurgist may supervise and control both the separation processes and final purification processes.
Extractive metallurgists also develop ways to improve the current methods of separating minerals. To do this, the extractive metallurgist processes small batches of ores in a laboratory and analyzes the efficiency of each operation and the feasibility of adapting the operations to commercial use. Extractive metallurgists also research ways to use new sources of metals, such as the reclamation of magnesium from seawater.
Extractive metallurgists are often involved in the design of treatment plants and refineries and the equipment and processes used within them. They may determine the types of machines needed, supervise the installation of machinery, train refinery workers, and closely observe processing operations. They monitor operations and suggest new methods and modifications needed to improve efficiency.
Because minerals are becoming depleted in the environment, extractive metallurgical engineers are constantly searching for new ways to take metals from low-grade ores and to recycle metals that are considered scrap material. During the last 25 years, many of the refining processes have greatly improved, lessening environmental damage from waste materials.
Physical metallurgists, on the other hand, focus on the scientific study of the relationship between the structure and properties of metals and devise uses for metals. These engineers begin their job after metals have been extracted and refined. At that point, most such metals are not yet useful, so they must be improved by being blended with other metals and nonmetals to produce alloys.
Physical metallurgists may conduct X-ray and microscopic experiments on the metals to determine their physical structure and other characteristics, such as the amount of alloys and base metals present. These engineers also test the materials for impurities and defects and determine whether they can be used in thermal, electrical, or magnetic applications. The results of the studies and tests determine what the metal will be used for and how long it is expected to last.
Using the data gained during research, physical metallurgists also develop new applications for metals. They devise processes that transform the metals so they have desired characteristics such as hardness, corrosion resistance, malleability, and durability. These processes include hot working, cold working, foundry methods, powder metallurgy, nuclear metallurgy, and heat treatment. After the metals have been processed, they can be transformed into commercial products. Metallographers conduct the laboratory investigations on metal samples and prepare reports for physical metallurgists to evaluate.
Lastly, process metallurgical engineers, or mechanical metallurgical engineers, take metals and, by melting, casting, and mechanically processing them, produce forms that will be sold for a multitude of applications, such as automotive parts, satellite components, and coins. The field of process metallurgy is quite broad, involving such methods as welding, soldering, plating, rolling, and finishing metals to produce commercially standard products.