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Metallurgical Engineers

History

Metals weren't scientifically examined until the 19th century, but the roots of the science of metallurgy were developed more than 6,000 years before that. As far back as the Stone Age, when tools and weapons were being carved from rocks, people discovered that some rocks were actually nuggets of gold and could be used as a measure of value as well as for jewelry and ornaments.

By about 4300 B.C., metals were being melted and molded into usable forms such as weapons. People then discovered that metals could be improved by mixing them with other components (such as blending copper and tin to form bronze). Such mixed metals are known as alloys. Metallurgical discoveries like this helped shape the flow of human civilization. After people discovered that copper could be melted to produce bronze, tougher weapons and tools were produced, thus changing aspects of warfare and power.

Rock deposits that contained metals became valuable, and people who had access to them wielded power. Such profitable mineral rock deposits came to be known as ores, and early alchemists developed methods for finding and preparing these ore deposits for metal extraction.

Iron has been an important metal extract since about 1200 B.C., the beginning of the Iron Age. Alchemists refined smelting processes and began producing brass by combining copper and zinc, which was used to make coins in the Roman Empire. Throughout the next centuries, lead, silver, and gold (among other metals) continued to be mined, but the most significant developments in metallurgy focused on applications for iron. During the 18th and 19th centuries, metallurgists began to better understand the properties of metals. It was then that metallurgy as a science began.

Physical metallurgy as a modern science dates back to 1890, when a group of metallurgists began the study of alloys. Enormous advances were made in the 20th century, including the development of stainless steel, the discovery of a strong but lightweight aluminum, and the increased use of magnesium and its alloys. In recent years, metallurgical scientists have extended their research into nonmetallic materials, such as ceramics, glass, plastics, and semiconductors. This field has grown so broad that it is now often referred to as materials science to emphasize that it deals with both metallic and nonmetallic substances.

A relatively new area of metallurgy is powder metallurgy. Scientists have developed a process in which metals are turned into powders, compressed, and then heat-treated to produce a desired product. This method has resulted in the development of new alloys and composite materials.

Metallurgists are also concentrating on ways to reclaim and recycle solid wastes in order to conserve our natural resources and protect our environment. Many mineral-rich underground deposits have been depleted. Our bridges, buildings, and machines are made with metals that today have become more difficult to mine and more scarce than ever before. Metallurgical engineers are also focusing on issues concerning environmental protection (because extraction processes create pollution), recycling methods, and more efficient, automated processes of metal recovery, production, and reuse.

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