Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Ask an expert: Materials chemist

Ask an expert: Materials chemistScience writer and specialist in materials chemistry, Richard Van Noorden was our expert for a month and school pupils had the chance to ask him some questions about his life and work.

What is materials chemistry? I think of materials as solid and I don't see how they can have chemistry?

Yes, materials are solid, but what are they made of? Atoms, just like everything else. Different properties of a material – whether it’s bendy, transparent, waterproof, conductive, reactive, or porous – all depend on the connections between the atoms it is made from. Materials chemists work out how the atoms in a material contribute to what the material is like. They then invent their own useful materials.

For example, some materials which are made by chemists reacting atoms together are: nylon stockings, Kevlar (a type of super-strong fibre used in for a wide range of things including bicycle tires, racing sails and body armour), drug tablets, contact lenses, plastics, artificial bone, solar cells, membranes, electronic components, and so on.

What’s more, many materials are catalysts – they speed up chemical reactions. For one example, metal catalysts in your car are carefully designed to clean up toxic gases from coming out of the exhaust, thanks to chemical reactions that occur as gas molecules crash into the atoms on the metal’s surface.

So materials’ properties depend on their internal chemistry, and they also assist chemical reactions themselves.

Related links