At WiseGEEK, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
Analytical chemistry is the study of matter in order to reveal its composition, structure, and extent. Because these understandings are fundamental in just about every chemical inquiry, this field is used to obtain information, ensure safety, and solve problems in many different chemical areas, and is essential in both theoretical and applied chemistry.
Early analytical chemistry was mainly focused on identifying elements and compounds and discovering their attributes. Discovery gave way to systematic analysis, which took a giant step forward with the invention in the 1850’s of the first instrument for chemical analysis—flame emissive spectrometry—by Robert Bunsen, a German chemist who is better known for his invention of the Bunsen burner, and his colleague Gustav Kirchoff, a German physicist who is known for his 1862 coining the name "black body" radiation for an object that absorbs all of the electromagnetic radiation that reaches it.
Other separation processes were developed, including various kinds of chromatography such as paper, gas, and liquid; electrophoresis; crystallography; microfiltration; and other spectrometers, including atomic absorption spectrometers, infrared spectrometers, and mass spectrometers. Other changes in the field took place, for example, the extension of analytical chemistry allowing for bioanalytical chemistry to develop. Bioanalytics includes areas such as genomics, lipidomics, metabolomics, peptidomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics.
The traditional subdivisions of analytical chemistry followed the same paradigm as in statistical analysis: a qualitative approach that was focused on determining what elements and/or compounds were present and a quantitative approach that aimed to establish the precise amount of an element or compound in a given sample. Either, or both, of these approaches can be applied to materials in a variety of fields, including the food and beverage industry, the pharmaceutical industry, synthetic materials such as polymers, and natural materials, such as minerals and water samples. As the field grew, analytical chemistry also broadened to embrace applications of its techniques in forensics, and medicine.
Analytical chemists today use a wide variety of techniques in their analyses, including some involving robotics, digital microscopes, a Fourier transform infrared spectophotometers, chip-based technology, and chemometrics, for example. They also use techniques in which technologies are combined, resulting in approaches referred to as hyphenated or hybrid techniques, characteristically referred to by initials. Examples include CE-MS—capillary electrophoresis-mass spectrometry; GC-MS—gas chromatography-mass spectrometry; CE-UV—capillary electrophoresis-ultraviolet; and HPLC/ESI-MS—high performance liquid chromatography/electrospray ionization-mass spectrometry.