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Areas of Chemistry

Defines the five branches of chemistry

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Areas of Chemistry

Acoustic and electric guitars

Credit: George Martin
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guitars_at_Smithonian_Museum.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

How do guitars vary in both sound and style?

In talking with guitar players, it is not enough to say “I play the guitar.” The next question is always “Oh, what do you play?” In the picture above, we see several styles of guitars.  There are two acoustic guitars (non-electric, non-amplified) and three different electric guitars.  Not shown are instruments such as a classical guitar (six nylon strings instead of steel strings), a bass guitar (usually four strings, but some have five), a resonator guitar for slide blues (uses open tunings), an electric steel guitar (for country music) and a Hawaiian guitar.  Guitar players specialize in a type of instrument and style of music.  The same is true of chemistry and other sciences.

Areas of Chemistry

The study of modern chemistry has many branches, but can generally be broken down into five main disciplines, or areas of study:

  • physical chemistry
  • organic chemistry
  • inorganic chemistry
  • analytical chemistry
  • biochemistry

Physical Chemistry

Physical chemistry is the study of macroscopic properties, atomic properties, and phenomena in chemical systems.  A physical chemist may study such things as the rates of chemical reactions, the energy transfers that occur in reactions, or the physical structure of materials at the molecular level. 

Organic Chemistry

Organic chemistry is the study of chemicals containing carbon.  Carbon is one of the most abundant elements on Earth and is capable of forming a tremendously vast number of chemicals (over twenty million so far).  Most of the chemicals found in all living organisms are based on carbon.

Inorganic Chemistry

Inorganic chemistry is the study of chemicals that do not, in general, contain carbon.  Inorganic chemicals are commonly found in rocks and minerals.  One current important area of inorganic chemistry deals with the design and properties of materials involved in energy and information technology.

Analytical Chemistry

Analytical chemistry is the study of the composition of matter. It focuses on separating, identifying, and quantifying chemicals in samples of matter.  An analytical chemist may use complex instruments to analyze an unknown material in order to determine its various components.

Measuring trace metals using atomic absorption spectroscopy

Credit: Courtesy of Bill Shrout, Environmental Protection Agency
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EPA_GULF_BREEZE_LABORATORY,_THE_MICROBIOLOGY_LAB._AN_ATOMIC_ABSORPTION_SYSTEM,_WHICH_MEASURES_MINUTE_QUANTITIES,_IS..._-_NARA_-_546269.tif
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Measurement of trace metals using atomic absorption spectroscopy. [Figure2]

Biochemistry

Biochemistry is the study of chemical processes that occur in living things.  Research may cover basic cellular processes up to understanding disease states so better treatments can be developed.

Measuring hormone concentrations in a machine

Credit: Courtesy of Fred W. Baker III, U.S. Department of Defense
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Defense.gov_photo_essay_090506-D-1852B-019.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Measuring hormone concentrations. [Figure3]

In practice, chemical research is often not limited to just one of the five major disciplines.  A particular chemist may use biochemistry to isolate a particular chemical found in the human body such as hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying component of red blood cells.  He or she may then proceed to analyze the hemoglobin using methods that would pertain to the areas of physical or analytical chemistry.  Many chemists specialize in areas that are combinations of the main disciplines, such as bioinorganic chemistry or physical organic chemistry.

Summary

  • Five areas of chemistry are described:
    • physical chemistry
    • organic chemistry
    • inorganic chemistry
    • analytical chemistry
    • biochemistry

Explore More

  1. Do an internet search using one of the five chemistry areas as a search term.  List two significant contributions made to chemistry by that area.

Review

Match the project with the proper chemistry discipline.

a. measuring mercury in seawater   1. biochemistry
b. studying enzymes in cells   2. organic chemistry
c. measuring the electrical properties of solutions 3. inorganic chemistry
d. synthesizing new carbon compounds 4. physical chemistry
e. making new compounds for energy processes 5. analytical chemistry

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