What Is Analytical Chemistry?
Analytical chemistry is the science of obtaining, processing, and communicating information about the composition and structure of matter. In other words, it is the art and science of determining what matter is and how much of it exists. In 2012 (salary survey data), analytical chemistry was the most popular field of work for ACS chemists.
What Do Analytical Chemists Do?
Analytical chemists use their knowledge of chemistry, instrumentation, computers, and statistics to solve problems in almost all areas of chemistry and for all kinds of industries. For example, their measurements are used to assure the safety and quality of food, pharmaceuticals, and water; to assure compliance with environmental and other regulations; to support the legal process; to help physicians diagnose diseases; and to provide measurements and documentation essential to trade and commerce. Analytical chemists often work in service-related jobs and are employed in industry, academia, and government. They conduct basic laboratory research; perform process and product development; design instruments used in analytical analysis; teach; and work in marketing and law. Analytical chemistry can be a challenging profession that makes significant contributions to many fields of science.
Typical Job Functions
- Perform qualitative and quantitative analysis
- Sample, define, isolate, concentrate, and preserve sample
- Set error limits
- Validate and verify results through calibration and standardization
- Perform separations based on differential chemical properties
- Create new ways to make measurements
- Interpret data in proper context
- Communicate their results and conclusions to other scientists
Automation has decreased the demand for analytical chemists to conduct repeated routine analysis—robots can prepare and analyze many samples, while advances in computer power allow the development of increasingly sophisticated algorithms to analyze and interpret analytical results. Though high-volume routine instrumental analyses using well-defined procedures are automated, knowledge of the organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry of the sample and the measurement is valuable, particularly when troubleshooting.
These increasingly sophisticated analytical methods and instrumentation as well as increasing regulatory requirements have opened new opportunities for analytical chemists in a variety of areas. For example, quality assurance specialists help to guarantee that analytical laboratories follow documented and approved procedures, and chemists with solid technical and computer skills are needed to develop and use complex analytical techniques. Government agencies need analytical chemists to verify compliance with regulatory requirements. Finally, corporate downsizings and outsourcing have provided the impetus for many entrepreneurial analytical chemists to start their own businesses, specializing in particular kinds of analyses or classes of compounds.
Workplaces for analytical chemists are as varied as their job responsibilities and the sophistication of the laboratories they work in. The fact that a lab may not be equipped with the state-of-the-art instrumentation does not mean its chemical measurements are any less sophisticated. It may just mean that the measurements and techniques are cost-effective and sufficient for their intended purpose. Depending on the industry and job responsibilities, analytical chemists may also work in manufacturing areas or as applications or sales and marketing chemists for vendors of instrumentation and apparatuses.
Employers tend to recruit analytical chemists with experience operating different and increasingly sophisticated instruments that are used for routine measurements. In addition, they often seek analytical chemists with experience in specific types of analysis—for example, the analysis of samples unique to pharmaceuticals, food, environmental samples, polymers, or minerals. Much of forensic chemistry is analytical chemistry applied to evidence of potential crimes.
Analytical chemists are generally involved with making measurements by using sophisticated state-of-the-art computer controlled instrumentation in government laboratories and laboratories in all areas of the chemical, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and food industries. They may also be involved in developing techniques within these laboratories as well as in the laboratories of instrumentation vendors. Analytical chemists are also suited for positions as quality assurance specialists to guarantee that procedures and protocols are followed and in quality control where they ensure the quality of products being produced.
Where Do Analytical Chemists Work?
The chemical industry is crucial to modern world economies and works to convert raw materials such as oil, natural gas, air, water, metals, and minerals into more than 70,000 different products. These base products are then used to make consumer products in addition to manufacturing, service, construction, agriculture, and other industries.
Over three-fourths of the chemical industry’s output worldwide is polymers and plastics. Chemicals are used to make a wide variety of consumer goods, as well as thousands of products that are inputs to the agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and service industries. The chemical industry itself consumes about a quarter of its own output. Major industrial customers include rubber and plastic products, textiles, apparel, petroleum refining, pulp and paper, and primary metals.
Agriculture and Food
Food companies produce products you see every day in your pantry and on supermarket shelves. Analytical scientists perform tests and analyses to ensure product quality and stability, develop assays, and troubleshoot and repair instrumentation. They may test for the presence of illegal growth hormones or for higher than allowed levels of pesticides or herbicides in the food.
Most forensic labs are run by state or local municipalities. In addition to the technical aspects, scientists working in forensic labs must deal with chain of custody issues and may be called upon to testify in court about the results of their analyses.
Oil and Petroleum
The petroleum industry includes the global processes of exploration, extraction, refining, transporting, and marketing petroleum products. The largest volume products of the industry are fuel oil and gasoline. Petroleum is also the raw material for many chemical products, including pharmaceuticals, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics. The industry is usually divided into three major components: upstream (exploration and production), midstream (transportation), and downstream (refining crude oil, processing and purifying natural gas, creating petrochemicals).
The pharmaceutical industry develops, produces, and markets drugs licensed for use as medications for humans or animals. Some pharmaceutical companies deal in brand-name (i.e., has a trade name and can be produced and sold only by the company holding the patent) and/or generic (i.e., chemically equivalent, lower-cost version of a brand-name drug) medications and medical devices (agents that act on diseases without chemical interaction with the body). Pharmaceuticals (brand name and generic) and medical devices are subject to a large number of country-specific laws and regulations regarding patenting, testing, safety assurance, efficacy, monitoring, and marketing.
Universities and Government Labs
Graduate and research universities and government laboratories are highly focused environments exploring new developments in the field, publishing papers and textbooks, and providing new Ph.Ds. to the field. At both universities and in government facilities, time is dedicated to applying for funding to support their research.
Government employers of analytical chemists include:
Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency; Food and Drug Administration, Department of Energy, Department of the Navy, Department of the Air Force, Department of the Army
Chemists in the Field