Metallurgical engineers develop new types of metal alloys and adapt existing materials to new uses. They manipulate the atomic and molecular structure of materials in controlled manufacturing environments, selecting materials with desirable mechanical, electrical, magnetic, chemical, and heat-transfer properties that meet specific performance requirements. Metallurgical engineers are sometimes also referred to as metallurgists. Metallurgical engineers are a subspecialty of materials engineers. There are approximately 21,000 materials engineers employed in the United States. Metallurgical engineers are also classified within steel manufacturing occupations. There are approximately 156,000 steel manufacturing jobs in the United States and metallurgical engineers hold about 4,000 of them.
Metallurgical Engineer Career 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.
Metallurgical Engineer Job Description
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 often are 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 20 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.
Metallurgical Engineer Career Requirements
During high school, you should pursue a strong background in mathematics and the physical sciences. At the very least, take chemistry and physics as well as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Computer science, analytical geometry, calculus, engineering science, and design are also recommended.
If your career goal is to become a metallurgical engineer, you will need a bachelor of science degree in materials or metallurgical engineering. Degrees are granted in many different specializations by more than 80 universities and colleges in the United States.
The first two years of college focus on subjects such as chemistry, physics, and mathematics, which are geared toward teaching analytical thinking. Students also take introductory engineering. By your sophomore year, you should have decided on a field of specialization because about one-third of your courses from then on will focus on metallurgy and related engineering areas.
There are a wide variety of programs available at colleges and universities, and it is helpful to explore as many of these programs as possible, especially those that are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Some programs prepare students for practical design and production work; others concentrate on theoretical science and mathematics.
More than 50 percent of metallurgical engineers begin their first job with a bachelor’s degree. Many engineers continue on for a master’s degree either immediately after graduation or after a few years of work experience. A master’s degree generally takes two years of study. A doctoral degree requires at least four years of study and research beyond the bachelor’s degree and is usually completed by engineers interested in research or teaching at the college level.
Certification or Licensing
Certification is a status granted by a technical or professional organization for the purpose of recognizing and documenting an individual’s abilities in a specific engineering field. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers offers the following designations to metallurgical engineers who work in manufacturing and who meet education and experience requirements: certified manufacturing engineer and certified engineer manager.
Engineers whose work may affect the life, health, or safety of the public must be registered according to regulations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Applicants for registration must have received a degree from an accredited engineering program and have four years of experience. They must also pass a written examination.
If you are interested in metallurgical engineering, you should have a curiosity about how things work, an analytical mind, and mechanical ability. In general, metallurgical engineers are interested in nature and the physical sciences and are creative and critical thinkers who enjoy problem solving. Engineers are patient, well organized, and attentive to detail because much of their work involves long-term projects and studies. They have good communication skills and are able to explain things easily to others. In addition, they can work comfortably both alone and with other people.
Exploring Metallurgical Engineer Career
Taking sculpture and welding classes is a good way of learning the properties of metals. Creating bronze sculptures, designing and making metal jewelry, and welding metals into structures provides hands-on experience. Interested high school students should read publications like the JETS Report and the Pre-Engineering Times, which are published by the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS). Science clubs such as JETS give students the opportunity to compete in academic events, take career exploration tests, and gain hands-on experience with metals and other materials.
Other excellent opportunities are found at summer camps and special academic programs. For example, Vanderbilt University has a summer program for high school students called Preparatory Academics for Vanderbilt Engineers (PAVE). Held in Nashville, Tennessee, PAVE offers activities in engineering, computer skills, problem solving, and technical writing. In college, students may join student chapters of associations such as the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration (SME).
Approximately 21,000 materials engineers and 4,000 metallurgical engineers within the steel manufacturing industry are employed in the United States. Opportunities for metallurgical engineers are found in a wide variety of settings, including metal-producing and processing companies, research institutes, and schools and universities. Engineers also work in aircraft manufacturing, machinery and electrical equipment manufacturing, the federal government, and for engineering consulting firms.
Most metallurgical engineers find their first job through their colleges’ career services office. Technical recruiters visit universities and colleges annually to interview graduating students and possibly offer them jobs. Metallurgical engineers can also find work by directly applying to companies, through job listings at state and private employment services, or in classified advertisements in newspapers and trade publications.
As in most occupations, the most experienced and educated workers stand the best chance for advancement. Metallurgical engineers with several years of technical experience are often eligible for supervisory positions; with further experience, engineers can apply for any number of managerial and administrative positions.
Engineers should keep current on technological advances in metallurgy throughout their careers. Many metallurgical engineers join professional associations, such as The Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society and the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration. These associations hold annual conferences and meetings, in addition to other activities, which keep members up to date on recent developments and events within the industry. Special recognition—awards, scholarships, grants, and fellowships—are often given to those who demonstrate outstanding achievement in the field. For example, the Application to Practice Award is presented by The Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society to individuals who excel in translating their research work into practical manufacturing applications.
The U.S. Department of Labor classifies metallurgical engineers under materials engineers, who had median annual earnings of $67,110 in 2004. Salaries ranged from less than $44,130 to more than $101,120. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that the average 2004 starting salary offer for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in all engineering disciplines, which would include materials engineering, was $49,672.
Benefits vary depending on the company but usually include paid vacations and holidays, sick days, medical and dental insurance, profit sharing, and retirement plans. Some companies offer tuition assistance for continuing education and pay for membership and expenses for participation in professional associations.
Extractive metallurgical engineers usually work in ore treatment plants, refineries, smelter plants, or steel mills. They may also work at remote mining sites. Those working in physical metallurgy are usually located in labs or manufacturing plants, doing research and conducting studies on extracted metals. Process engineers work in a diverse range of environments, including welding shops, rolling mills, and industrial production plants for such products as automobiles and computer parts.
Those who choose research as their specialty will spend much of their time in labs and libraries. Those who work on school faculties will spend time in classrooms, but many are also employed by companies as working professional metallurgists.
Most metallurgical engineers work a 40-hour week. Metallurgical engineers who are employed in industrial refining may work on night shifts. Occasionally, evening or weekend work may be necessary to complete special projects or work on experiments.
Metallurgical Engineer Career Outlook
Employment for metallurgical engineers classified under the materials engineer specialty is expected to grow about as fast as the average through 2014, particularly in the professional, scientific, and technical services industries. Within the steel manufacturing industry, employment in all fields, including metallurgical engineers, is expected to decline through 2014 due to consolidation of companies and continued automation in the steel-making process. However, engineers should find sufficient job openings because of the low number of new graduates relative to other engineering disciplines.
Metallurgical engineers will increasingly work with companies that are developing new methods of processing low-grade ores, that is, those that have not yet been tapped because they are not as profitable as higher grades. As the world’s ore deposits become further depleted, engineers will be needed to locate new sites and devise new alloy combinations. Also, metallurgical engineers will find jobs with companies that develop new methods of recycling scrap metals and those that devise nonpolluting processing systems and cleanup methods for existing plants.