University of Wisconsin Madison College of Engineering

Know your materials

Did You Know?


Stainless steel was accidentally discovered!

That's right, stainless steel was accidentally discovered by Harry Brearley during 1912 in Sheffield, England. Brearley was developing a new alloy for gun barrels for the British Army. Amongst the rain-soaked pile of rusty samples that did not meet requirements, Brearley spotted a shiny piece of metal. That sample was an iron-chromium alloy, the bases of all stainless steel used today. Iron-chromium alloy is still not used for gun barrels.Learn more about stainless steel! 



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Photo of professors Arnold and Lagally


MSE Professors Mike Arnold and Max Lagally enjoying delicious Ice cream cones at the Union. 

What is Materials Science and Engineering?

The discovery of new materials and improvement of existing ones are crucial to bettering our quality of life and solving critical technological and societal problems. Learn more!

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What causes rapid heating upon re-entry?

Upon re-entry any form of debris or aircraft will be colliding with a large number of particles. These will collide with the object and impart thermal energy correct? Not quite. While they will impart energy, the majority of heating is a result of compression. The atmospheric gases in front of the materials compress and rapidly heat, resulting in the bright hot objects seen as meteors. In order to shield their aircrafts, rocket scientists will use ceramic fiber tiles which shield their shuttles.

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How can two materials be the same temperature, but one still colder than the other?

The ‘cold’ your body registers is a heat flux ( Temp / (area^2  * time) ), not a specific temperature. If you touch both an insulator and a thermal conductor at room temperature the metal will feel warm while the insulator will feel comparatively warmer.

What is the most efficient semiconductor? A) Silicon B) Germanium C) Tin D) Diamond

D) Diamond.  Surprisingly enough, diamond is in fact a semiconductor. One of its most desirable properties is exhibited through fantastic insulating capabilities. The thermal conductivity of diamond is significantly larger than other common semiconductors enabling it to operate at far higher frequencies. Upon being properly doped, diamond has the possibility of providing significantly improved processing technologies.

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What was the first application of synthetic polymers? A) Clothing B) Chewing Gum C) Cue-balls D) Adhesive

C: Cue-balls in billiards. By 1863, the ivory shortage had become so critical that a New York billiard-ball manufacturer offered a $10,000 prize to the person who could create a useful substitute. The winners were John Wesley Hyatt, a young printer in Albany, New York, and his brother, Isaiah. Though they never received the money they did change history by inventing celluloid, one of the world's first plastics. Celluloid not only resembled ivory, it had astonishing properties: at normal temperatures, it was a permanent, hard solid; when heated, it became soft and could be molded or rolled into sheets. It soon became the material of choice for billiard balls and dozens of other products.

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What element is used to keep near perfect time? A) Helium B) Cesium C) Silicon D) Rubidium

B) Cesium.  Cesium can be used to accurately measure the passage of time to  high degree.  This element produces frequencies and research applications.  

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