Random Thoughts
Matters Metallurgical

By Dr A. Q. Khan


Response to my column from scholars, students and common people from all over the world is so great that it is impossible for me to respond to their kind words, sentiments and comments. I try my best to respond to all queries. There are so many problems and/or topics that people would like me to write about.
In my last two columns I expressed my views on the importance of agriculture for our survival and the danger that looms just around the corner. I am aware of the fact that experts in this field have already been pressing the government to wake up to the danger. I have just added my voice to support their efforts.
A large number of students, teachers and scholars have asked me to write more about education, especially about engineering education. Prof Subhani has time and again emphasized the importance of good primary education and its importance to higher education. As most of our readers know, I am a metallurgical engineer-cum-scientist. I am a physical metallurgist, and my subjects is based on physics, chemistry and mathematics, and at the same time deals with matters of engineering. Physical metallurgy provides a broad, solid foundation to deal with all kinds of sophisticated problems. One example of the broad aspects of this subject was the basic training to enable me to handle the difficult and sophisticated uranium-enrichment technology, which most people rightly regard as being in the realm of physics. Many of the technologies associated with enrichment are in the sphere of physics, mechanical engineering, chemical technology and electronics. Similarly, the technologies involved in missile- and weapons-production are numerous and a good education in metallurgical engineering provides a solid base to successfully handle most of the challenges involved.
The problem with the engineering profession is that it is often under-estimated – anyone hammering a nail in a wall or fixing a bicycle is considered a mechanical engineer; anyone who can fix a plug or change a bulb is an electrical engineer; anybody who can melt metal in a pot over a primitive fire is a metallurgical engineer. My purpose here is to throw light on the subject and profession of metallurgy and materials engineering, and to explain its immense importance in every kind of industry and to a country's development.
If it is said that the wealth and prosperity of a nation ultimately depends on the achievements of its engineers, it is not an exaggeration to say that the backbone of the engineering profession is metallurgy. Whether it is a sewing needle, a satellite or a space vehicle, nothing can be made without a proper understanding of metallurgy and materials engineering. Of all the "Ms" involved in the industrial and technological development of a country – manpower, materials, machines, methods and money – materials and how to shape and use them is the most important factor.
The study of materials is an applied science based on the physics and chemistry of the solid state. It includes the extraction of the materials from their minerals or oil-based sources, their refining, or synthesis, and their fabrication into finished products. It examines in detail the molecular structure and its influence on the material's properties. An understanding of the relationship between the molecular structure and properties allows new advanced materials to be developed, which are an essential part of today's technology.
Materials are the backbone of our society, whether in the aerospace industry, plastics, the auto industry, ceramics, electronics or medicine. Thus, Materials Sciences and Engineering involves the study of all materials that are of use, or potential use, in engineering, scientific or medical applications. The key role of the materials engineer/scientist is to develop and select the best possible material(s) for a particular engineering task. They are also responsible for finding the most effective method of producing these, both for reliability and for economical purposes.

In order to do this, the materials engineer/scientist needs to study the structure of materials at many different levels. This means understanding the electronic, atomic and nuclear configurations and crystal and grain structures of materials. This information is essential for understanding and predicting properties such as mechanical strength and toughness under varying conditions, chemical stability and the electrical, magnetic and optical characteristics of the finished/final product.
The subject of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering is exceptionally broad. This is both in terms of the materials studied - i.e., metals, ceramics, polyester, glass, composites, semi-conductors – and in terms of the disciplines it embraces – i.e., physics, chemistry and most engineering disciplines. It is an exciting, stimulating and dynamic area of study. New materials, such as high-temperature superconductors, and smart materials are continually being developed. A metallurgical engineer must regularly update his/her knowledge to ensure that he/she is abreast of cutting-edge developments in the field.
The metallurgical engineer of today must be technically competent, market-conscious, commercially adept, environmentally sensitive and responsive to human needs. The metallurgical engineering curriculum aims at producing a multi-dimensional engineer. It provides a broad range of fundamental courses at the earlier stages and progressively leads to areas of specialization.
In short, a degree in metallurgy and materials engineering is an excellent qualification for those engineers interested in careers in diverse industries, research and commerce. While employment patterns usually change from year to year, the underlying trends within industry will be placing even greater emphasis upon the need to employ engineers with a degree in materials. The future is likely to offer many rewarding and challenging opportunities for materials and metallurgical engineers.
A few words here, especially meant for students and teachers, about what a materials and metallurgical engineer learns abroad. Some of the one-year subjects are advanced mathematics, applied mechanics, atomic physics, nuclear physics, ternary alloys, chemical physics, electronics, computational design, cast iron, powder metallurgy, quantum mechanics, fluid dynamics and high pressure physics. Two-year subjects are theoretical physics, solid-state physics, steelmaking and applied thermodynamics. Four-year subjects are metals and alloys (production and properties).
Other subjects offered, in courses of varying duration, include reactor materials and engineering, non-destructive testing, vacuum technology, physical metallurgy, X-ray diffraction and crystallography, corrosion technology, machine design, welding technology, foundry technology, mineralogy, composite materials, ceramics, industrial management and industrial psychology. In addition, a large number of other subjects are offered, dealing with the special metals/alloys used in many very important present-day industrial/scientific plants and equipment that are an essential part of the study. All these subjects go with extensive practicals.

It is interesting that even students of physics, electronics, mechanical engineering and chemical engineering are obliged to take full four-year courses in materials science and technology. The final year of MS studies is devoted to a research thesis and two specialized subjects related to the topic of the thesis. This approach gives a very broad base to these engineers, who will have to tackle all kinds of problems in the course of their careers. This kind of background, together with my work experience, was instrumental in enabling me to deal with the complex problems that we faced at Kahuta. One should never forget that without the advances in metallurgy and materials sciences, nuclear reactors, aircraft, automobiles, ships, etc., etc., would never have been possible.
It is interesting to note that before materials science and metallurgy was developed and established as a distinct discipline, all the important and pioneering work in this field was done by physicists and chemists. Some of the best physical metallurgists were physicists.
Another important point that should be stressed is that the industrialization, progress and prosperity of the USA, the UK, Germany, France, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Japan and, more recently, China and South Korea is due to their rapid and sustained progress in the metallurgical sciences. The production of aeroplanes, ships, nuclear plants, steel mills, automobiles, trains, workshop machines and various weapon systems, are all overwhelmingly dependent on metallurgical and materials technology. Pakistan remained underdeveloped because our leaders, mostly bureaucrats and feudal landlords, never comprehended the importance of developing the metallurgical industry.
In conclusion, a wise piece of advice from Thomas Huxley: "Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the things you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not. It is the first lesson that ought to be learnt and however early a man's training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly." (Courtesy The News)


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