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What Is Analytical Chemistry?

Read Time: 4 minutes

Definition | Analytical Chemists | Importance

| Chemistry at Home | Future

When you think of chemistry, what image comes to mind? For most people, it brings to mind lab coats, safety goggles and Bunsen burners. If you’re a fan of pop culture, mistakes, explosions and soot-covered faces. While that does happen, there’s more to chemistry than making a mess. We’ve looked at many of the different branches of chemistry, from organic to inorganic. Today, we’ll take an in-depth look at analytical chemistry. What is it, what do scientists do in this field and why is it so important?

How to Define Analytical Chemistry

The dictionary defines analytical chemistry as “examining materials by separating them into their components…” The goal is to “identify each one and how much there is of each one”. Scientists use tools like mass spectrometers to analyze the makeup of everything that crosses their desk. Mass spectrometry works by converting individual component molecules into gas-phase ions and then sorting and analyzing each of them based on their mass. Once sorted, the mass spectrometer sees how many of each ion is present and sends that data back to the computer.

Quantitative analysis helps scientists determine the amount of each substance in a compound. This gets broken up into two branches — organic and inorganic. The organic analysis includes things like the iodine test. It checks for the presence of starch in an item. The inorganic analysis includes things like the flame test. This test involves setting a substance on fire. Scientists analyze what color it burns to determine its chemical makeup. Mass spectrometry is one of the tools in an analytical chemist’s arsenal. What do analytical chemists do during an average day?

What Do Analytical Chemists Do?

By seeing how many ions are present, analytical chemists can figure out what makes up any material. Scientists might choose to specialize in a specific area. For example, they can choose to study forensics, toxicology, or pharmacology. Abby from the show “NCIS” is an excellent pop-culture example of an analytical chemist that focuses on forensics. Analytical chemists might choose to offer their skills to any field requiring them.

In addition to chemical discoveries, they will be responsible for several things depending on the exact demands of the position. This includes creating reports, analyzing the data they collect, writing research papers and even creating new analytical methods. They can find careers anywhere from government agencies and other publicly funded places, to hospitals and other public health facilities. What else can they do? Pharmaceutical companies, food producers and testing companies are some other options, to name a few.

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Why Is Analytical Chemistry Important?

Analytical chemistry is integral in many different industries and is becoming even more critical each year. We, as consumers, always demand safe and affordable foods and pharmaceuticals, as well as power and technology, to make our lives easier. Without analytical chemistry, it becomes challenging to create techniques that allow us to accommodate these demands while maintaining a benign environment. It’s vital to keep dangerous chemicals and substances out of soil, air and water that could be hazardous to human health.

If a production style does create dangerous or toxic substances, analytical chemists can come up with methods to neutralize them. They do this by analyzing the chemical makeup of the waste products. From there, they can develop a method to either neutralize each part or just the dangerous elements. Then, it won’t cause harm to human, animal, or plant life.

Chemists that specialize in the analytical branch of their field also work to improve their area of expertise. They create new and more accurate techniques and instruments to help make their job more efficient. Advances in computing can also assist these chemists, taking over much of the mental and manual calculations.

Can You Do Analytical Chemistry at Home?

Is analytical chemistry something that you can attempt in the comfort of your own home? Is it safe to try some of these projects in your own lab?

In a word, absolutely. While you might not have access to a supercomputer or a mass spectrometer, you can still use simple methods to determine something’s elemental composition. The flame test can tell you what kind of element is in your test subject, based on the color that it burns. You can even use what you’ve discovered to create multicolor tiki torches by mixing them with a methanol base.

Lithium metal burns red, potassium burns purple, calcium burns orange and boric acid burns a bright green. If you see a color in flames and you’re not sure which element you might be seeing, repeat the test. You can get pure samples of other items that burn the same color and compare the color reaction to see which ones match up.

Children will likely find the flame test fascinating. However, make sure there is plenty of adult supervision whenever a fire is involved. Safety should always be first and foremost, especially when it comes to kids and flames.

Looking Toward the Future

If you’re ever curious about what makes up the world around you, analytical chemistry might be the branch for you. Analytical chemists focus on what makes up the world around us, breaking everything down to its individual components to see how things work. Analytical chemists can be found in any industry, depending on their specialty. You can find these chemists working in manufacturing, in forensics, in health care and pharmaceuticals, and even in food production.

By looking at an item’s base components, analytical chemists can figure out how to keep dangerous chemicals from hurting people and the environment. Then, they help create new and more efficient ways to produce the things we used every day. Try out the flame test for inorganic items and see what you can come up with. But just make sure you’re not lighting anything important on fire!

Featured Image Credit: Arthur Jan Fijalkowski, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What Is Analytical Chemistry?
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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.