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What Does an Inorganic Chemist Do?

By Ray Hawk
Updated Jan 28, 2024
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The inorganic chemist works with compounds that are largely based on minerals, whereas organic chemistry is focused on carbon-based compounds generally of biological origin. Though 20,000,000 organic compounds have been identified as of 2011, far fewer inorganic compounds have been identified or made in the laboratory. Many inorganic compounds are theoretical, and do not exist in nature. The inorganic chemist, therefore, is interested in the large group of oxides and sulfides found in the Earth's crust, and in the synthesis of new inorganic chemicals. Inorganic chemistry can be loosely defined as involved in chemical synthesis of any compound that is not a carbon atom covalently bound to another atom of common biological origin, such as oxygen, hydrogen, or nitrogen.

Many of the heavily-researched inorganic compounds are based on metals, such as aluminum, magnesium, sodium, and so on. Since the properties of many metals involves their crystal structure, an inorganic chemist may work in crystallography research and electronics applications, such as in the development of semiconductor grade silicon. The synthesis of superconducting materials, composites, and high-grade ceramics involve cutting-edge research in inorganic chemistry for the same types of materials.

Since inorganic chemical research is focused on material properties, these scientists more closely associate with physicists and engineers in industry than do organic chemists, who have closer ties to environmental research and living systems. Chemists who work with inorganic materials are also more likely to be found in laboratories doing basic research in fields such as nuclear energy and solid-state electronics, or discovering new chemical catalysts or fuels. When employed by the government or large corporations, an inorganic chemist often does pure research into identifying new compounds and interactions, but more often is concerned with practical improvements in currently-manufactured synthetic materials.

The field of materials science research has more of a demand for the inorganic chemist than other traditional fields such as mining and computer research. Materials science also draws in physicists and chemical engineers who work closely on projects with the inorganic chemist. They are all devoted to understanding the properties and structures of materials. The chemist's role in materials science is to understand these properties so that new compounds can be predicted and then synthesized.

Polymer science is a big subset of materials science for an inorganic chemist, and involves plastic materials synthesis, as well as the manufacture of coatings and adhesives. Another small, though rapidly-growing, field is in ceramics research, which focuses on the atomic level and high-tech applications, such as silicon carbide heat shields for spacecraft and advanced automotive and turbine engine parts. Governments like that of the US are now employing inorganic chemists to research methods of recovering metals from waste streams for companies in aerospace that utilize a lot of heavy metals in aircraft body and parts manufacturing.

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