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A car interior is made from a variety of materials.A car interior is made from a variety of materials. A material is anything made of matter, which includes everything we can see, from the air to our own skin. But often when we use the word “materials” we mean materials that are used in manufacturing: anything needed to make a useful item, such as crockery, a toy or a spacecraft. Natural materials are from animal, plant, inorganic or fossil fuel sources. Manmade materials, such as plastics, synthetic textiles and composites, are produced from natural materials using a variety of processes, such as mixing and heating.

The tanneries in Fes, MoroccoThe tanneries in Fes, Morocco

Animal materials

Animal materials, such as wool, hair, silk, feathers and leather, are widely used for producing clothing and other textiles. Products made from materials such as ivory, tortoiseshell, horn and fur used to be common, but today concerns about animal welfare and endangered species have reduced their use.

A range of household items, such as soaps, cosmetics and perfumes (using materials such as mink oil, or lanolin from wool), paint (sometimes using casein, obtained from milk), polishes (beeswax) and inks and colourants (using, for example, red dye from cochineal bugs), are made from animal products.

Tapping latex Tapping latex

Plant materials

Wood is used to make paper, furniture and construction materials. Plant fibres, such as cotton and straw, are made into textiles and used as raw materials for plastics. Other products from plant materials include cork, cosmetics and toiletries, dyes, varnishes, paints and waxes.

Natural rubber is made from a sticky fluid, called latex, that is collected by cutting the bark of rubber trees. More than 12,000 plant species produce latex containing rubber, but only in a few of these is it suitable for commercial use. To make it less sticky and more elastic, the latex undergoes a process called vulcanization: the addition of sulphur or other additives. This changes the chemical composition of the natural substance by strengthening the links between its molecules. Vulcanized rubber is used in products such as tyres, hoses, gloves, adhesives and balloons.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are formed in the ground or in the seabed from the decay of dead plants and animals. These fuels, such as coal, petroleum and natural gas, take millions of years to form. They are also widely used as raw materials in the manufacture of plastics, synthetic textiles, adhesives, paints and inks, and a wide range of chemicals used in healthcare, farming, construction and electronics.

Fixing slate tiles to a roofFixing slate tiles to a roof

Inorganic materials

Inorganic materials are natural materials from non-living sources. These materials are often dug from the ground. Rock, such as granite, marble, slate and sandstone, and aggregates, such as sand, gravel and crushed stone, are inorganic materials that are often used for the construction of buildings, roads and bridges. Gemstones, such as diamonds, rubies and sapphires, are commonly used in jewellery. Metals are usually found in rocks known as ores and have multiple uses.

The Dakin Building in Brisbane, CaliforniaThe Dakin Building in Brisbane, California


Ceramic materials are made by treating inorganic materials at a high temperature. Ceramics tend to be stiff but brittle. The best-known ceramics are brick, pottery, porcelain and chinaware. These are made by shaping and heating clay, a soft, sticky mixture of minerals that is dug from the ground.

Modern ceramic materials have been developed to have a range of properties, from extreme strength to acting as superconductors (excellent transmitters) of heat or electricity. Ceramic products include brake discs for vehicles, tools, abrasives, spectacles, armour and a wide range of electronic products.


Stages in the manufacture of glassStages in the manufacture of glassGlass is formed by melting together three inorganic materials: sand, limestone and soda ash. These are melted in a furnace (1). Molten glass may be poured into a mould (2). A plunger (3), followed by compressed air, forces it into the shape of the mould (4). In the float glass process, molten glass is floated on a bath of molten tin (5), before being cooled (6) and cut into lengths (7).

Pouring concrete at a building sitePouring concrete at a building site


Composite materials are made from two or more materials, which remain separate (rather than fused) in the resulting structure. Composites are usually developed for their strength. The most widely used manmade material, concrete, is a composite. Concrete is used in construction, from building foundations and pavements to bridges and dams. It is made from aggregate (sand, gravel, crushed stone) mixed with water and cement. It can be poured into a mould, then sets to become hard and stone-like.

Fibreglass bicycle helmetFibreglass bicycle helmet Other composite materials include reinforced plastics, such as fibreglass (an extremely strong material used for vehicles, boats, helmets and roofing) or carbon fibre (fibres of carbon combined with plastics used in cars, boats and aircraft, and in sporting equipment such as bicycle components and fishing rods); Metal composites, such as steel reinforced with boron nitride (used for tank armour); and cermet, a composite of ceramic and metal (used in spacecraft, cutting tools and electronic parts).

 Nina Notman

See also in Geography

See also in Technology

The earliest known products made from glass are beads. They date from 4500 years ago and were found in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and Syria).

The strongest material is graphene, which is 200 times stronger than steel. It is composed purely of carbon and was developed by physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won a Nobel Prize for their work in 2010.

The Romans were the first to use concrete, from around 300 BC. Many Roman structures built using concrete are still standing today. They include the dome of the Pantheon temple in Rome, which is 43 m (141 ft) across and dates from AD 126.

The largest glass building in the world is the Crystal Cathedral in California, USA, constructed in 1981. It is made of 10,000 glass panels and can seat 2700 worshippers.

The Olmecs of Central America were the first civilization to use rubber—in balls for their ballgames—as early as 1600 BC. The name Olmec means “rubber people” in the Aztec language.

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