What is Metallurgy?

Barbara R. Cochran

In its general, modern sense, metallurgy is the science that studies the chemical and physical properties of metals, including how they perform when used for culturally useful industrial purposes. The term often refers to the procedures used in extracting metals from ore, as well as to the processes related to metals purification and alloy production. It also refers to the craft of making culturally useful objects out of metal, or metalworking. The practice of metalworking has been carried out over thousands of centuries.

Metallurgy is the study of metals. Bronze is a metal alloy that's often used to make statues.
Metallurgy is the study of metals. Bronze is a metal alloy that's often used to make statues.

Evidence of this science and craft dates back roughly 6,500 years. Copper, tin, silver, and meteoric iron, which was used by the Egyptians to make weapons, all underwent some form of metalworking process in various ancient cultures. The first evidence of a standard metallurgy technology appeared during the Bronze Age, which started around 3,500 BC, when it was discovered that by heating and combining copper and tin, a bronze alloy could be created. The Iron Age began around 1,200 BC when the Hittites discovered how to extract iron from ore and work it to advance their cultural aims. Georg Agricola, considered to be the father of metallurgy, detailed ore mining and metal extraction procedures, as well as other aspects of the science, in his 16th century book, De re metallica.

Metallurgy is the study of ore mining and extraction of valuable metals.
Metallurgy is the study of ore mining and extraction of valuable metals.

Modern metallurgy is divided into two subtypes. Process metallurgy refers to the steps involved in producing metals, in most cases, from sulfides or oxides, and then refining them in their reduced form through electrolysis or selective oxidation of impurities. Physical metallurgy studies the structure of metals, based on their composition and treatment, and how this structure is related to their properties. It is also concerned with the scientific principles and engineering applications employed in metals fabrication and treatments, and how metal products hold up under their industrial usages.

Many metallurgical engineers oversee work on products made of metal in a manufacturing facility.
Many metallurgical engineers oversee work on products made of metal in a manufacturing facility.

Metallurgical engineers employ different forms of metals testing. In that way, they can make quantified assumptions about a metal's strength. These tests are meant to determine such properties as metal hardness, impact toughness, and tensile strength, to name of few.

In general, elemental metals, in their pure native form, are too soft for industrial uses. That is why the science of metallurgy tends to focus on the manufacture of alloys, in which metals are combined together or with non-metals. Steel and cast irons are examples of iron-carbon alloys. Aluminum, copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc are the metals that are used most, usually in their alloy forms.

A knowledge of metallurgy helps a welder know which torch should be used for cutting specific metals.
A knowledge of metallurgy helps a welder know which torch should be used for cutting specific metals.

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Discussion Comments


Hey, how do you pronounce the word "metallurgy" aloud, anyway? I'm pretty sure the way I have in mind, which sounds like "meh-TAHL-lurr-jee", is right, but it sounds so funny when I say it aloud! Maybe "meh-TAL-lurr-jee", or "MEH-tal-lurr-jee"?

Does anybody know for sure?


@seHiro - You're right, people always focus on the ancient metallurgy. Modern metallurgy is a pretty amazing part of mechanical engineering, though.

Think about everything we use today that is metal. Cars and other vehicles are metal, and that metal has to be tough enough to withstand daily weather and wear and tear as well as resisting damage in a crash.

Boats are made of metal quite frequently these days, or at the least they're part metal. Think of the giant heavy duty shipping boats you can see in any deep dock harbor, or the immense aircraft carriers used by the military. Metal is important to boats.

I'm not even going to go into how many airplane types need metal, and then there are the little things: dinner forks, belt buckles, computer shells, cans for drinks, and more. When you sit back and look, you couldn't go through a day of your life without encountering metal at some point.

I wonder how somebody gets into the metallurgy profession? Nobody ever mentions "metallurgy" when they discuss what career to go into, and I don't think many colleges offer degrees in it, either.


According to the article here, physical metallurgy is the practice of studying the scientific make ups of different kinds of metal. Sounds like a modern, more scientific form of alchemy, doesn't it?

For those who don't know, alchemy was a really big practice back in the medieval days. It was basically people attempting to use science (which was really inaccurate and blended in with their ideas of what was magical back then) to turn one material into another. One of the most sought-after alchemy formulas was turning a common metal, like copper, into gold.

Wow, somehow this discussion section always goes back to the medieval days, doesn't it? I guess that's because metallurgy history starts back in primitive times like that.

The medieval period actually came after the Iron Age and the Bronze Age, but I'll bet the images of knights with swords are so iconic that most people just think of those times when metalworking anything is discussed. I know I think of knights first when I think of forging swords.


@malmal - The fact that metallurgy is the reason medieval weaponry creation was possible is in fact one of the things that makes it so fascinating to me.

While it's true that the invention of medieval weapons brought about a whole bunch of new ways to be violent, the same material science behind making swords and maces was also useful for making sickles and hoes and other farming implements.

In other words, metallurgy helped the medieval world's agriculture improve by making more efficient tools for that job, not just warfare.

I don't think keeping ourselves low-tech to avoid people being able to make weapons is the right track to change history to, you know? Instead, why don't humans learn to respect their technology and not abuse the power of it for killing people instead of growing food?

When humans started using technology for furthering themselves instead of just endlessly killing each other with axes and swords and such, that's when we were in fact mature enough to respect our own power. But we had to go through the medieval stage first -- it was part of us "growing up".

That's my two cents.


So metallurgy is the art of metalworking, like forging weaponry and such? Imagine what wars would have been prevented in the Bronze Age and the Iron Age if the history of metallurgy was different.

Metallurgy has singlehandedly allowed mankind to make hundreds of different kinds of weapons. Think about it -- guillotine blades, swords, daggers, flails, spikes, iron maidens, arrow heads, spear heads. The list goes on; it seems like the thing we made first and in the most quantity was just tools for killing each other. That's pretty sad when you think about it...

Wouldn't it be better for mankind, as far as wars go, if metallurgy was invented more recently? How about in the last hundred years, after we were done with that medieval killing each other with blunt force and slicing stage?

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