Physical Chemistry

What Is Physical Chemistry?

Physical chemistry is the study of how matter behaves on a molecular and atomic level and how chemical reactions occur. Based on their analyses, physical chemists may develop new theories, such as how complex structures are formed. Physical chemists often work closely with materials scientists to research and develop potential uses for new materials.

Training for the Real World

Physical chemistry has traditionally given students broad training, and positioned them to work in a variety of scientific careers. Many people trained as physical chemists ultimately work as analytical chemists, where they work to understand the fundamental process involved in analytical techniques, allowing them to enhance and expand those techniques. 

For example, Matt Lynch, senior scientist in the Beauty Care Division of Procter & Gamble, works in physical/analytical chemistry, conducting applied and basic surfactant research for product development applications. His work involves looking at the assembly of molecules and determining how to measure and quantify it. Lynch says, “We assemble molecules in crystals and solutions and look at how to measure that in terms of arrangements of atoms and molecules; how they grow to form bigger aggregates in solutions as well as in crystals; and how these aggregates of surfactants impart various properties to a product.” Lynch notes that he uses diffraction, infrared, and microscopy methods in his work. By developing better ways to measure and quantitate aspects of the ingredients, he helps his company develop better products.


What Do Physical Chemists Do?

Physical chemists are focused on understanding the physical properties of atoms and molecules, the way chemical reactions work, and what these properties reveal. Their work involves analyzing materials, developing methods to test and characterize the properties of materials, developing theories about these properties, and discovering the potential use of the materials. Using sophisticated instrumentation and equipment has always been an important aspect of physical chemistry. Most physical chemistry labs are full of analytical instruments, which can include lasers, mass spectrometers, nuclear magnetic resonance, and electron microscopes.

Physical chemists’ discoveries are based on understanding chemical properties and describing their behavior using theories of physics and mathematical computations. Physical chemists predict properties and reactions of chemicals, then test and refine those predications. They use mathematical analysis and statistics on huge datasets, sometimes with millions of data points, to reveal hidden information about compounds, materials, and processes.  They may also conduct simulations, developing mathematical equations that predict how compounds will react over time.

Recently, more and more physical chemists have found homes in the emerging fields of materials science and molecular modeling where their skills in analyzing and predicting the behavior of physical properties have exciting new applications.  By combining the mathematical rigidity of physical chemistry with the practicality of new materials and new applications, the field of physical chemistry is expanding in new and exciting ways. 


Where Is Physical Chemistry Used?

Physical chemists work in a variety of different areas, but their common goal is to discover, test, and understand the fundamental physical characteristics of a material—be it solid, liquid, or gas. Precision and attention to detail make their work somewhat similar to analytical chemistry, though physical chemists also stress the importance of applying knowledge of math and physics to develop a thorough understanding of the material.

Physical chemists generally have a strong curiosity about how things work at the atomic level and enjoy working with lab instrumentation and machines. Many are drawn to the fact that physical chemistry processes are similar to those of engineering, and many chemists enjoy using their knowledge and love of chemistry to make discoveries.

A physical chemistry lab is characterized by the large machines and sophisticated instrumentation these scientists use to test and analyze materials. Many who work in the lab say their time is divided between working at the bench and working at their desks doing calculations and reviewing data. Physical chemists who go into management also spend time supervising other scientists, reviewing department needs and goals, and meeting with business managers in their companies.


Work Settings

A degree in physical chemistry provides ideal training for some high-tech and materials science careers. However, fewer physical chemists are being hired by industry and government labs because the basic research performed by physical chemists is becoming an increasingly small part of industrial research. As a result, many physical chemists are redirecting their skills into applications research and interdisciplinary fields such as materials science.


Industries Where Physical Chemistry Is Used

Materials

A few physical chemists find employment in industries that are involved with the development of materials, including plastics, ceramics, catalysis, electronics, fuel formulation, batteries, surfactants and colloids, and personal care products, with most of them working as material scientists or analytical chemists.

Wall Street, Law Firms, Venture Capital Firms

Physical chemistry requires significant mathematical and statistical understanding, and that combination is valuable in many industries that have large data sets that need to be mined for information. Wall Street financial firms, law firms, and venture capital firms are examples of places that hire scientists to read and analyze material from the chemical industry.

Pharmaceuticals

Computational modeling is another application of physical chemistry and involves quantifying and predicting how materials will function. The pharmaceutical and materials industries especially conduct significant amounts of molecular modeling, but an advanced degree is usually required for this work.

Universities and Government Labs

Many physical chemists work at national labs such as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where they ensure the safety, security, and reliability of nuclear weapons, or Sandia National Laboratory, where they develop, engineer, and test the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons.

More physical chemists go to graduate school than those in most other fields, as the amount of math required for serious physical chemistry work is beyond the scope of most undergraduate programs. An advanced degree is required for many industrial, governmental, and academic positions.