Colloid and Surface Science

Affects Our Everyday Lives

Not a day goes by without some aspect of colloid and surface science affecting us: The biomolecular and physiological interactions that sustain life; the blue skies we see on a beautiful day; the processed foods we eat; the medicines and cosmetics we use; the floppy disks, data, VCR tapes we store computer data and video programs on; the soaps and detergents we use for cleaning; and other numerous everyday products and processes we take for granted.

A colloid is a state of matter characterized by a large surface area per unit volume or unit mass. Colloidal systems include solid-solid (metal alloys); solid-liquid (a suspension such as muddy water); solid-gas (smoke, airborne dust, aerosol inhalers); liquid-solid (butter, creams, ointments, lotions, photographic emulsions, paints); liquid-liquid (an emulsion such as milk); liquid-gas (fog, mist, aerosol sprays); gas-solid (marshmallows); and gas-liquid (foams). Colloid and surface scientists seek to understand the chemical and physical behavior of various combinations of gases, liquids, and solids.One defining feature of the colloid state is that it is not associated with any given material, whether it be organic, inorganic, or of biological or mineral origin, according to Egon Matijevic, distinguished university professor of Chemistry at Clarkson University. "A colloid can be a bubble, a droplet, a solid particle, a liquid or solid film, or foam wherever you have a huge area to volume ratio."

The chemical and physical nature of the interface between components determines the stability of the resulting colloidal system, hence, the surface science aspect. By chemically modifying the surface of one component or by adding other components to modify the interactions between the constituents of the system–surface active agents or surfactants–one can enhance the stability and performance of the resulting colloidal system.

Offers Numerous Opportunities

"Colloid and surface science is a core technology and the broadest measure of basic science in a wide range of industries," says Anthony Ward, colloid and physical chemistry-related research manager at Solutia, Inc. "It runs from physics through math and chemistry to biology and medicine because of size dependence driving the very interesting properties you discover. Although I have taught and used colloid and surface science in agriculture and the oil, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries, I don't have expertise in any one of these areas. Essentially, it's something with a theme that runs across traditional disciplines."

Flexibility is the watchword in industry today and the chemical industry is no exception. "If you understand the basics of colloid and surface science, you can be very flexible because you can apply the science to a wide range of areas," says Ward. Giving examples of the use of surfactants in industry, David Osborne, the vice president of research and development at ViroTex Corporation, points out that the study of the colloidal processes that occur when cleaning pharmaceutical equipment is important for optimizing the cleaning system. He notes that tribology–the science of lubrication–involves surface phenomena that occur between the lubricating fluid and moving parts in machinery. Osborne also cites that in the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industries, surface active agents or cosolvents may be used to modify and enhance the solubility and bioavailability of drug substances. Most biomolecular and physiological processes that sustain life and cause disease involve interfaces, observes Osborne.

Understanding the surface nature of fine particles of toners used in xerography, phosphors used in TV screens, and the pigments used in paints, colorings, and coatings is important for optimum performance, too. "It's important to understand the chemical nature of the surface of the [phosphor and toner] particle and it's shape and surface charge," says Philip Bryan, laboratory head in medical imaging at Kodak. A technical supervisor in the paint and pigment industry adds that there are always opportunities for people who learn how to make fine particles and use sophisticated analytical instrumentation to characterize the nature of the surface of different types of colloids and fine particles.

Surface interactions are also becoming more important as scientific instrumentation becomes smaller. With the development of chemical laboratories on a chip, the surface to volume ratio goes up and more focus needs to be placed on surface interactions, observes J. Michael Ramsey, group leader and senior staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Though you can sometimes take advantage of surface interactions, more often than not they are undesirable. As a result, there are a lot of issues in terms of surface modification that we would like to study and we've recently written a proposal to employ a surface scientist to understand these interactions.

"Because colloid and surface science often involves the development and application of new and existing products, opportunities in technical sales and marketing and developing new business are available for those who have worked on the laboratory bench and possess good communication, presentation, and interpersonal skills. "By having a solid knowledge base of the physical properties and behavior of our surfactants, we are able to develop new ideas and solutions to our customers' problems," says Patricia Aikens, applications science manager, ICI Surfactants. "I often go on sales calls with sales representatives, present technical seminars to employees of other companies, present our work at technical meetings, and publish in journals to let our customers know what we're working on and how we can help them."

Opportunities for starting businesses centered around colloid and surface science are absolutely phenomenal, according to Ward. "There are a lot of people doing that now because of downsizing." Because these businesses are small or have developed a new concept, they are better equipped to develop solutions for problems to meet the needs of a wide range of customers.

"Almost every industry, especially the pharmaceutical industry, deals with surfactants in some way. There is a lot of opportunity in this field." observes Osborne.

Rick Wilhelmy , Entrepreneur/Surface Scientist

Rick Wilhelmy left Alcoa to start Wilhelmy Fine Particles. He is currently marketing hydroxyapatite-filled chromatography columns for purifying antibodies produced in fermentation broths. "Hydroxyapatite has been around for 40 years. By changing the shape of the hydroxyapatite particle while retaining it's high surface area, I developed particles through which liquids can flow very fast. This allows us to operate the purification instrumentation at very high flow rates to quickly and efficiently isolate and purify antibodies from fermentation broths," says Wilhelmy. "My vision is to see the company grow to the point where we are able to apply colloid and surface chemistry to a large number of applications such as making new materials, ceramic-type materials and catalyst supports."

Work Description

Colloid and surface science spans the full spectrum of endeavors in the chemical, pharmaceutical, and allied industries. The development of new materials and the modification of existing ones to meet customers' needs are one aspect of this area of science. Another area of focus is basic research whose goals are to understand these materials and their fundamental interactions with each other and within the colloidal system.

Working Conditions

Colloid and surface chemists very often work in laboratories on research and development projects. Those with several years of applications experience may find opportunities in technical sales and marketing. Ph.D.s with several years experience in a research and development setting and good supervisory, motivational, and organizational skills are good candidates for technical management positions. Depending on the company, B.S. level chemists might be hired as technicians and work under the direction of chemists with advanced degrees whereas chemists with advanced degrees might work on independent projects. .

Places of Employment

Colloid and surface scientists are employed at university research institutes and large and small companies throughout the United States and Europe. Colloid and surface chemistry is involved in every segment and niche of clinical diagnostics and the specialty chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries. However, it is not uncommon that job candidates must convince potential employers that hiring a chemist with expertise in colloid and surface science will add value to the business.

Personal Characteristics

Because problems in colloid and surface science are often complex, the ability to be a team player is important. In addition, flexibility and a can-do attitude of accomplishment in applying a broad knowledge base to solve a wide variety of problems will enhance success in this field.

Education and Training

By its very nature, colloid and surface science is an interdisciplinary field that melds physical, organic, inorganic, and analytical chemistries. However, because the discipline is rarely taught as a pure science in U.S. chemistry departments, as it is in Europe, advanced training at the masters and Ph.D. levels and good laboratory skills are almost always necessary to secure jobs in the field. Exceptions to the rule might include bachelor level chemists who have research skills or courses in the discipline. Courses in chemical engineering, materials, and pharmaceutical sciences that specialize in colloid and surface phenomena as well as processes are useful.

Job Outlook

Opportunities may seem limited because of downsizings and cutbacks, but opportunities are available for those with general as well as specialized knowledge and the ability to apply it. The key is to understand employers' problems and how to apply colloid and surface science principles to solve them.

Salary Information

To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.

What You Can Do Now

Look at the ACS national meeting abstracts for a overview of the problems being studied by industrial and academic researchers. Also take a look at the several World Wide Web sites on the Internet for links to university groups doing research in the field.