Metallurgy is a domain of materials science that studies the physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements, their intermetallic compounds, and their compounds, which are called alloys. It is also the technology of metals: the way in which science is applied to their practical use. Metallurgy is commonly used in the craft of metalworking.
The earliest recorded metal employed by humans appears to be gold which can be found free or "native". Small amounts of natural gold have been found in Spanish caves used during the late Paleolithic period, c. 40,000 BC.
Silver, copper, tin and meteoric iron can also be found native, allowing a limited amount of metalworking in early cultures. Egyptian weapons made from meteoric iron in about 3000 B.C. were highly prized as "Daggers from Heaven". However, by learning to get copper and tin by heating rocks and combining copper and tin to make an alloy called bronze, the technology of metallurgy began about 3500 B.C. with the Bronze Age.
The extraction of iron from its ore into a workable metal is much more difficult. It appears to have been invented by the Hittites in about 1200 B.C., beginning the Iron Age. The secret of extracting and working iron was a key factor in the success of the Philistines.
Historical developments in ferrous metallurgy can be found in a wide variety of past cultures and civilizations. This includes the ancient and medieval kingdoms and empires of the Middle East and Near East, ancient Egypt and Anatolia (Turkey), Carthage, the Greeks and Romans of ancient Europe, medieval Europe, ancient and medieval China, ancient and medieval India, ancient and medieval Japan, etc. Of interest to note is that many applications, practices, and devices associated or involved in metallurgy were possibly established in ancient China before Europeans mastered these crafts (such as the innovation of the blast furnace, cast iron, steel, hydraulic-powered trip hammers, etc.). However, modern research suggests that Roman technology was far more sophisticated than hitherto supposed, especially in mining methods, metal extraction and forging. They were for example expert in hydraulic mining methods well before the Chinese, or any other civilization of the time.
A 16th century book by Georg Agricola called De re metallica describes the highly developed and complex processes of mining metal ores, metal extraction and metallurgy of the time. Agricola has been described as the "father of metallurgy"
Extractive metallurgy is the practice of removing valuable metals from an ore and refining the extracted raw metals into a purer form. In order to convert a metal oxide or sulfide to a purer metal, the ore must be reduced either physically, chemically, or electrolytically.
Extractive metallurgists are interested in three primary streams: feed, concentrate (valuable metal oxide/sulfide), and tailings (waste). After mining, large pieces of the ore feed are broken through crushing and/or grinding in order to obtain particles small enough where each particle is either mostly valuable or mostly waste. Concentrating the particles of value in a form supporting separation enables the desired metal to be removed from waste products.
Mining may not be necessary if the ore body and physical environment are conducive to leaching. Leaching dissolves minerals in an ore body and results in an enriched solution. The solution is collected and processed to extract valuable metals.
Ore bodies often contain more than one valuable metal. Tailings of a previous process may be used as a feed in another process to extract a secondary product from the original ore. Additionally, a concentrate may contain more than one valuable metal. That concentrate would then be processed to separate the valuable metals into individual constituents.
Metallography allows the metallurgist to study the microstructure of metals.
Metallurgists study the microscopic and macroscopic properties using metallography, a technique invented by Henry Clifton Sorby. In metallography, an alloy of interest is ground flat and polished to a mirror finish. The sample can then be etched to reveal the microstructure and macrostructure of the metal. A metallurgist can then examine the sample with an optical or electron microscope and learn a great deal about the sample's composition, mechanical properties, and processing history.
Crystallography, often using diffraction of x-rays or electrons, is another valuable tool available to the modern metallurgist. Crystallography allow the identification of unknown materials and reveals the crystal structure of the sample. Quantitative crystallography can be used to calculate the amount of phases present as well as the degree of strain to which a sample has been subjected.
The physical properties of metals can be quantified by mechanical testing. Typical tests include tensile strength, compressive strength, hardness, impact toughness, fatigue and creep life.