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Pure and Applied Chemistry

Define two different types of research

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Pure and Applied Chemistry

Chemist performing research in a lab

Credit: Courtesy of Bill Shrout, Environmental Protection Agency
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

How does research enable us to understand chemistry?

How did chemistry develop? What is happening in the field of chemistry today? What can I do with a chemistry degree?  All of these are good questions and they should be asked by students interested in chemistry.  Research in chemistry (or any other field, for that matter) is interesting and challenging.  But there are different directions a person can take as they explore research opportunities.

Types of Research

In science, we usually talk about two types of research: pure and applied.  Pure research focuses on answering basic questions such as, "how do gases behave?"  Applied research would be involved in the process of developing a specific preparation for a gas in order for it to be produced and delivered efficiently and economically. This division sounds like it would be easy to make, but sometimes we cannot draw a clear line between what is “pure” and what is “applied.”

Examples of “Pure” Research 

A lot of “pure” research is of the “what is this?” or “how does it work?” variety.  The early history of chemistry contains many examples.  The ancient Greek philosophers debated the composition of matter (earth? air? fire? water? all of the above?).  They weren’t going to do anything with their knowledge – they just wanted to know.

Drawing of ancient Greek philosophers

Credit: Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nuremberg_chronicles_f_60v_1.png
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Ancient Greek philosophers.[Figure2]

Studies on the elements (especially after Mendeleev’s periodic table was published) were primarily “pure” research types of experiments.  Does this element exist? What are its properties?  The scientists did not have any practical application in mind, but were curious about the world around them.

Examples of “Applied” Research

There is a great deal of “applied” research taking place today.  In general, no new science principles are discovered, but existing knowledge is used to develop a new product.  Research on laundry detergents will probably not give us any new concepts about soap, but will help us develop materials that get our clothes cleaner, use less water, and create lower amounts of pollution.

A lot of research is done by petroleum companies.  They want to find better ways to power vehicles, better lubricants to cut down on engine wear, and better ways to lower air pollution.  These companies will use information that is readily available to come up with new products.

A gasoline pump

Credit: Orin Zebest
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/orinrobertjohn/4388866449/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Gasoline pump.[Figure3]




 Some “In-Between” Examples

Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between pure and applied research.  What may start out as simply asking a question may result is some very useful information.  If scientists are studying the biochemistry of a microorganism that causes a disease, they may soon find information that would suggest a way to make a chemical that would inactivate the microorganism.  The compound could be used to learn more about the biochemistry, but could also be used to cure the disease. 

Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen in the bloodstream.  Scientists studied hemoglobin simply to learn how it worked.  Out of this research came an understanding of how the protein changes shape when oxygen attaches to it.  This information was then applied to help patients with sickle cell anemia, a disorder caused by an abnormal hemoglobin structure that makes hemoglobin molecules clump up when oxygen leaves the protein.  Basic knowledge of protein structure led to an improved understanding of a wide-spread disease and opened the door for development of treatments.


  • Pure research focuses on understanding basic properties and processes.
  • Applied research focuses on the use of information to create useful materials.
  • Sometimes there is no clear line between pure and applied research.


  1. What is pure research?
  2. What is applied research?
  3. Give one example of pure research.
  4. Give on example of applied research.
  5. Is it always easy to classify research as pure or applied? Explain your answer.

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Courtesy of Bill Shrout, Environmental Protection Agency; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EPA_GULF_BREEZE_LABORATORY,_CHEMISTRY_LAB._THE_CHEMIST_IS_TESTING_WATER_SAMPLES_FOR_PESTICIDES_-_NARA_-_546277.tif; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nuremberg_chronicles_f_60v_1.png; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  3. [3]^ Credit: Orin Zebest; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/orinrobertjohn/4388866449/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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