Materials chemistry is about making new molecules and compounds - but that's just a small part of the story. Consider the tiles that cover the surface of the space shuttle. They are made from the same stuff as the glass in a quartz-halogen headlight. What sets space shuttle tiles apart from other types of heat-resistant glass is the way in which they are structured. The tiles consist of fine glass fibers organized in an open cellular pattern, so that tiny spaces account for 95% of their volume. They are thermally insulating and lightweight - unlike the glass in the headlight. So the properties of a material don't just depend on its composition, but also on how the constituent atoms and molecules are arranged.
Author: Christopher Viney, Heriot Watt University.