Organic Chemistry

What Is Organic Chemistry?

Organic chemistry is the study of the structure, properties, composition, reactions, and preparation of carbon-containing compounds, which include not only hydrocarbons but also compounds with any number of other elements, including hydrogen (most compounds contain at least one carbon–hydrogen bond), nitrogen, oxygen, halogens, phosphorus, silicon, and sulfur. This branch of chemistry was originally limited to compounds produced by living organisms but has been broadened to include human-made substances such as plastics. The range of application of organic compounds is enormous and also includes, but is not limited to, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, food, explosives, paints, and cosmetics.


Where Is Organic Chemistry Used?

Organic chemistry is a highly creative science in which chemists create new molecules and explore the properties of existing compounds. It is the most popular field of study for ACS chemists and Ph.D. chemists.

Organic compounds are all around us. They are central to the economic growth of the United States in the rubber, plastics, fuel, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, detergent, coatings, dyestuff, and agrichemical industries, to name a few. The very foundations of biochemistry, biotechnology, and medicine are built on organic compounds and their role in life processes. Many modern, high-tech materials are at least partially composed of organic compounds .

Organic chemists spend much of their time creating new compounds and developing better ways of synthesizing previously known compounds.


Which Industries Hire Organic Chemists?

Organic chemists at all levels are generally employed by pharmaceutical, biotech, chemical, consumer product, and petroleum industries. Chemists in industry mainly work in development, while chemists in academia are involved in more basic research. The federal (e.g., Food and Drug Administration, Patent and Trademark Office) state, and local governments also hire organic chemists.


Biotechnology (“biotech” for short) is a field of applied biology that involves using living organisms and bioprocesses to create or modify products for a specific use. The cultivation of plants has been viewed as the earliest example of biotechnology and the precursor to modern genetic engineering and cell and tissue culture technologies. Virtually all biotechnology products are the result of organic chemistry.

Biotechnology is used in in health care, crop production and agriculture, nonfood uses of crops and other products (e.g., biodegradable plastics, vegetable oil, biofuels), and environmental applications.

Examples of biotechnology companies are GenenTech, Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, and Cargill.  These companies make products such as seeds for crops that are resistant to certain diseases, seed coatings with specific properties, and plants that are drought resistant.


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.

Examples of chemical companies include BASF, Bayer, Braskem, Celanese, Dow, DuPont, and Eastman.

Consumer Products

Consumer products companies make consumer products for everyday use, such as soaps, detergents, cleaning products, plastic goods, and cosmetics.

Examples of consumer products companies are PPG Industries, DuPont, Mitsubishi Chemical, and Johnson & Johnson.


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).

Examples of petroleum companies are ExxonMobil, Shell Chemicals, Chevron Phillips Chemial Company, and BP.


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.

Examples of pharmaceuticals companies are Pfizer, Novartis, Merck, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, Hoffman-LaRoche, AstraZeneca, and Abbott Laboratories.

The ACS Division of Organic Chemistry

The ACS Divsion of Organic Chemistry offers a wide array of resources, journals, symposia and events

Chemists in the Field

Chris Ciolli

Chris Ciolli

Technology Manager for Product Integrity

Amber Evans

Amber Evans

Development scientist

Thomas Runge

Thomas Runge
Runge Consulting LLC

Independent Consultant

Willis Weigand

Willis Weigand
Southwestern University

Assoc. Professor & Director of General Chemistry Labs

Miriam Quintal

Miriam Quintal
Lewis-Burke Associates

Government Relations Consultant

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Jeremy Bishop
CH2M Hill

Project Chemist