Chemists are materials scientists that search for new knowledge about chemicals and how to use them to improve life; a field of inquiry better known as chemistry. Chemical research has led to the discovery and development of new and improved synthetic fibers, paints, adhesives, drugs, cosmetics, electronic components, lubricants, and thousands of other products. Chemists also develop processes such as improved oil refining and petrochemical processing that save energy and reduce pollution. Applications of materials science include studies of superconducting materials, graphite materials, integrated-circuit chips, and fuel cells. Research on the chemistry of living things spurs advances in medicine, agriculture, food processing, and other fields.
Research and Development
Many chemists work in research and development (R&D). In basic research, they investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter and the laws that govern the combination of elements and reactions of substances to each other. In applied R&D, these scientists create new products and processes or improve existing ones, often using knowledge gained from basic research. For example, the development of synthetic rubber and plastics resulted from research on small molecules uniting to form large ones, a process called polymerization. R&D chemists and materials scientists use computers and a wide variety of sophisticated laboratory instrumentation for modeling, simulation, and experimental analysis.
Developments in technology and the use of computers have allowed chemists to practice new, more efficient techniques, such as combinatorial chemistry. This technique makes and tests large quantities of chemical compounds simultaneously to find those with certain desired properties. Combinatorial chemistry allows chemists to produce thousands of compounds more quickly and less expensively than was formerly possible. In some cases, chemists use virtual libraries of millions of chemicals to find compounds with certain characteristics, allowing them to synthesize only the most promising candidates.
Scientific R&D in general has become more interdisciplinary in recent years; as a result, many chemists no longer work individually. Instead they will often be part of research teams that include other scientists, such as biologists and physicists; computer specialists; and engineers.
Chemists also work in production and quality control in chemical manufacturing plants. They prepare instructions for plant workers that specify ingredients, mixing times, and temperatures for each stage in the process. They also monitor automated processes to ensure proper product yield and test samples of raw materials or finished products to ensure that these samples meet industry and government standards, including regulations governing pollution. Chemists report and document test results and analyze those results in hopes of improving existing theories or developing new test methods.
Analytical chemists determine the structure, composition, and nature of substances by examining and identifying their various elements or compounds. These chemists are crucial to the pharmaceutical industry because pharmaceutical companies need to know the identity of compounds that they hope to turn into drugs. Furthermore, analytical chemists develop techniques and study the relationships and interactions among the parts of compounds. They also identify the presence and concentration of chemical pollutants in water, soil, and the air.
Organic chemists study the chemistry of the vast number of carbon compounds that make up all living things. They synthesize elements or simple compounds to create new compounds or substances that have different properties and applications. These compounds have in turn been used to develop many commercial products, such as drugs, plastics, and elastomers (elastic substances similar to rubber). Inorganic chemists study compounds consisting mainly of elements other than carbon, such as those in electronic components.
Biochemists study the chemical composition of living things. They analyze the complex chemical combinations and reactions involved in metabolism, reproduction, and growth. Biochemists do most of their work in biotechnology, which involves understanding the complex chemistry of life.
Physical and theoretical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules and the theoretical properties of matter; and they investigate how chemical reactions work. Their research may result in new and better energy sources. Macromolecular chemists study the behavior of atoms and molecules. Medicinal chemists study the structural properties of compounds intended for applications to human medicine.
Materials chemists study and develop new materials to improve existing products or make new ones. In fact, virtually all chemists are involved in this quest in one way or another.
- Chemists and Material Scientists Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, U.S. Department of Labor. Accessed October 12, 2010.
- Biological Scientists Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, U.S. Department of Labor. Accessed October 12, 2010.