What is the Difference Between Materials Science and Chemical Engineering?


There was a time in my life when I wanted to be a chemical engineer. Luckily for me, this time only lasted for a few hours while I did some internet sleuthing and found out about materials science. I hope–for you–I can reduce your misconception to the time it takes to read this article.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying that chemical engineering is somehow a worse degree than materials science. There are people who would rather study materials science, and people who would rather study chemical engineering. The problem is that the name “chemical engineering” suggests the kind of work that materials scientists actually do. In reality, the two fields are nothing alike.

For an average high school student who likes chemistry and wants a degree that lets her do chemistry with an application-oriented, engineering spin, chemical engineering sounds like the correct major. It’s literally a combination of the words “chemistry” and “engineering.”

Suppose this student wanted to know more about bonding so she could understand what makes things harder, stronger, or stickier? Perhaps she wanted to tackle engineering’s biggest chemical problem, corrosion? (If you don’t know what corrosion is, rust on steel is a good example). Maybe she wanted to explore phase changes in engineering solutions, rather than in speculative chemical interactions?

If you are intrigued by the questions I posed, you don’t want to study chemical engineering. What you actually want is materials science and engineering.

Materials science deals with every aspect of materials. The field is highly interdisciplinary and its education includes equal parts science and engineering. Some aspects of materials science might be described as “solid-state chemistry.”

As I understand it, chemical engineering focuses primarily on manufacturing and processing chemicals. The field involves chemical reactions, lots of fluid dynamics, and very little solid-state engineering.

Both materials science and chemical engineering share several traits.

  • They are both engineering majors.
  • They require strong fundamentals in physics, math, and chemistry. Chemical engineering will emphasize more math and organic chemistry, while materials science will emphasize modern physics.
  • Chemistry plays an important role in both fields. It is possible to study materials science while largely avoiding chemistry, but chemistry is inescapable for chemical engineers.
  • They both require knowledge of thermodynamics and kinetics. Again, materials science is an extremely broad field so there is room to minimize the necessity of one or both these sub-disciplines, but thermodynamics and kinetics are integral to chemical engineering.

But I’m sure you didn’t click this article because you wanted to know how these fields were similar. So, here are 7 differences between chemical engineering and materials science and engineering.

Materials Science is less Chemistry-Oriented than Chemical Engineering

If you are like me and you loved chemistry in high school, don’t worry. There is plenty of chemistry available in materials science, and many of the fundamentals of materials science are similar to chemistry but somehow even more interesting.

If you’re like my wife and you have a stigma against chemistry, there are many avenues of materials science that allow you to use similar thought-processes as in chemistry, while still avoiding heavy memorization associated with traditional chemistry concepts (especially organic chemistry).

Materials scientists need a general understanding of inorganic chemistry and thorough chemical understanding of their research subject (if applicable). Topics in polymers will involve heavier organic chemistry, and topics in ceramics will require more inorganic chemistry. Metallurgy can involve chemistry, especially when dealing with corrosion, but it is not a daily part of most metallurgists’ work.

You can be an excellent materials scientist with an advanced high-school level of chemistry.

Chemical Engineers focus primarily on chemistry. Their work involves fluid interactions and reactions, so they need to memorize a lot more chemistry rules.

Materials Science Focuses on Solids, Chemical Engineering Focuses on Fluids

Solids are sloooow. Diffusion happens way faster in liquids and gases, than in solids. That makes reactions easy in fluids, and difficult in solids. If you want a reaction to happen, solids are very annoying to deal with. If you don’t want a reaction to happen, however, solids are generally the preferred state of matter.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Materials scientists are afraid of organic chemistry, chemists are afraid of solids.

That goes for chemical engineers, too.

As a general rule, materials science operates in the solid state. Phase transformations are extremely useful, and in many materials it’s important to really understand how to transition from liquid to solid.

For example, the steelmaking process involves a fair bit of chemistry and liquid state.

There are other applications that involve solid-liquid interfaces, as well. But as a general rule, things are built with solids, so materials science concerns itself with solids.

A materials scientist might design a pipe. A chemical engineer would be in charge of fluid flow within the pipe.

A chemical engineer would also be in charge of industrial scaling. Chemists (or materials scientists) might develop some process that works in a laboratory. Reproducing that process at large scale is not a trivial task.

Laboratory settings have many advantages: they are clean, temperature-controlled, sometimes humidity-controlled, and when reacting small amounts of chemicals, diffusion is not a large concern. Chemical engineers need to overcome these problems–and more–when scaling up chemical processes.

Materials engineers may also work at scaling up laboratory experiments done by materials scientists. In this case, however, the problem is usually not related to chemistry. Since everything is much slower in solids, you won’t usually have an unwelcome reaction at large scales. With solids, scaling up mostly has to deal with processing. For example, quenching a small metal sample is easy because it’s easy to find a bucket of water, and the entire sample cools at a similar rate because it’s small. Quenching a rocket-ship size piece of metal is much more difficult because you need a lake to quench it in, and there may be a significant difference in cooling rates between the outside metal and inside metal.

Let me illustrate the differences between materials scientists and chemical engineers by examining how they approach diffusion. 

Materials scientists who work with solids will be concerned with long term (decades) diffusion between structural metals, hydrogen diffusion, and atom migration within the solid.

Chemical Engineers who work with liquids may need to predict how long two gases will take to homogeneously interdiffuse, or how two liquids diffuse while also reacting together.

Chemical Engineers Need More Knowledge about Heat Transfer

Don’t get me wrong. Heat transfer is an important part of many sub-disciplines in materials science–but it’s not critical to an undergraduate education in materials science. In undergrad, I took one class on transport phenomena. That class, which did spend a few weeks on heat transport, was far and away the most useless class I’ve taken in materials science.

Aside from an intuitive understanding of heat flow, materials scientists may need heat transfer knowledge to assess hardenability (Jominy test) or to design insulating/conducting materials.

For chemical engineers, heat transfer is critical. You will probably take several classes on the subject, even as an undergraduate. You will often be concerned with large reactions, which may be endothermic or exothermic. A large part of a chemical engineers job will be understanding how heat is generated and where it flows.

Chemical Engineering is a More Difficult Major than Materials Science

This isn’t a universal rule, but most people will find it easier to learn broad information about many topics than to deep information about a few topics.

Chemical engineers focus a lot on advanced chemistry, fluid dynamics, and heat transfer (and the math associated with these topics). Typical classes may include Kinetics and Reactor Engineering, Chemical Processing, Advanced Thermodynamics, Catalysts, and Fluid Mechanics.

Materials scientists need basic chemistry, basic transport phenomena, and basics in many other topics. Most undergraduate materials science programs will only touch the surface of many subjects, and relies on students to do research to learn more about their chosen subject. Typical classes may include Bonding and Structure, Thermodynamics, Processing, Mechanical Properties, and Electrical/Optical Properties.

Chemical Engineers Develop Processes, Materials Scientists Develop Products

Of course, materials scientists have the entire materials tetrahedron to work with. However, most of the time, we are concerned with creating the ideal final product. Materials scientists ensure materials have the ideal properties for peak performance.

Chemical engineers can design and operate industrial apparatus and installations. They need to safely control large-scale processes. They can plan and conduct experimental research of industrial processes that include chemical reactions.

Materials Science is More Versatile than Chemical Engineering

Yeah, okay maybe there’s some bias on a website about materials science. My wife and I are both very glad with our choice of majors, and we also know a lot more about materials science than chemical engineering, but really: materials science is possibly the most versatile major in STEM. 

Materials scientists can work in any industry (including finance). Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field, they can also switch industries mid-career. Materials science has more sub-disciplines than chemical engineering, as well as more scientific funding. There are no bounds to what a materials scientist can study.

The largest employers of materials engineersPercentage of held jobs
Transportation equipment manufacturing16%
Engineering services10%
Computer and electronic product manufacturing9%
R&D in the physical, engineering, and life sciences9%
Primary metal manufacturing8%

Chemical engineers have no shortage of career opportunities either. However, they mostly work in the chemical, petroleum, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and food industries.

The largest employers of chemical engineersPercentage of held jobs
R&D in the physical, engineering, and life sciences10%
Engineering services9%
Petroleum and coal products manufacturing6%
Wholesale trade4%
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing4%

Materials scientists may have the edge in gaining internships, because students can intern as scientists or engineers. For example, CERN (where my wife worked for a year) is a prestigious institution that mostly hires scientists. They have positions for IT, applied physics, materials science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, robotics, etc. However, they rarely hire chemical engineers.

In contrast, there may be companies in industry that want engineering interns, not science interns. Chemical engineers would have the advantage in this setting, but materials scientists would still be qualified. These companies would be unlikely to hire chemists or physicists.

How Does the Salary Compare Between Materials Scientists and Chemical Engineers?

Typically, chemical engineering jobs pay more than materials engineering jobs (or materials science jobs). There are slightly more chemical engineers than materials engineers.

The median salary for chemical engineers is $104,910.

The median salary for materials engineers is $92,390.

The median salary for materials engineers is $99,800.

Keep in mind though: materials science students can take many jobs that don’t have the title “materials engineer.” They have a lot more flexibility and can choose lower-paying jobs. Chemical engineers often have to take the only jobs available.

You can notice this trend by looking at both engineers’ location quotient in the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. 46% of all chemical engineering jobs are in only five states. In contrast, the top five states for materials engineering jobs only have 37% of the jobs.

Additionally, if you look at a survey comparing college majors in materials science and chemical engineering (rather than by job title), you’ll notice that materials scientists actually earn more and have lower unemployment.

In this study, which looks at the starting salary for the last 12 months of employment based on undergraduate degree, Materials science degree-holders earned $90,000 annually with a 2.0% unemployment rate, while chemical engineering degree holders averaged $88,000 with a 3.0% unemployment rate.

Which Major is Best for You?

If you are an elite student who wants to master advanced mathematics and difficult coursework, enter a competitive workforce, and earn a lot of money–chemical engineering is the best choice.

If you are curious about the world, want to keep your options open, and want to learn a little bit about all fields of science–materials science and engineering is the best degree for you.

References and Further Reading

For more job-related statistics, check out the US Bureau of Labor Statistics pages about Materials Engineers and Chemical Engineers.

Information on highest-earning undergraduate degrees was taken from the Bankrate survey.

If you want to learn more about materials science and engineering, click here to read our post explaining what materials science is.

If you want to know if you should major in materials science and engineering, perhaps this article will convince you!

Click here to read about the differences between Materials Science and Chemistry.

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