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What is Analytical Chemistry? - Definition & Impact

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson we will learn about analytical chemistry. We will look at the history of this branch of science, explore what analytical chemists do, and see how it has impacted the world around us.

Analytical Chemistry

Have you ever noticed that milk will say ''vitamin D added''? Or looked at a cereal box with so many vitamins and minerals listed and wondered where they all came from? The ingredient declaration simply says, vitamin E or zinc. How are they getting this vitamin E to add into the cereal? Where does the vitamin D in milk come from? Some of these compounds are created in the laboratory using other chemicals. Other times, chemists isolate these vitamins and minerals from other food until they only have the vitamin or mineral that they need.

Analytical chemistry is the process of isolating specific compounds, identifying those compounds, and determining how much of the compounds are in a product. Analytical chemistry is used in many different areas of science. It can be used to determine how much cholesterol is in your blood, to identify an unknown compound found at a crime scene, or to purify the oil you put into your car.

History of Analytical Chemistry

Analytical chemistry has been around for as long as chemistry has been studied because chemists always needed to determine what compound they were observing. Chemists such as Justus von Liebig, Robert Bunsen, and Gustav Kirchoff developed methods to identify and isolate specific compounds.

Justus von Liebig developed a system to identify elements. He also determined that specific functional groups, such as aldehydes, tend to react in similar ways. Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchoff worked together to develop the first instrument that could analyze compounds and determine the elements in that compound. This instrument was a flame spectrometer. The flame spectrometer was the precursor to our modern-day spectrometers that are used to analyze compounds.

Today methods such as mass spectrometry, NMR-chromatography, and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) are used in analytical chemistry.

What Do Analytical Chemists Do?

Analytical chemistry is used in many different fields. Much of this work is done using complex instruments. Analytical chemists need to know how to operate these instruments and how to understand the output.

For example, let's look at NMR-chromatography. In order to use this method, the analytical chemist needs to know how to prepare the compound. They need to know if it will it be mixed with anything first to isolate elements, or how much should be put into the machine, or what settings are needed. Then once the NMR prints out the following information an analytical chemist needs to know how to understand it:

Ethanol NMR
Ethanol NMR

To you this might just look like a bunch of lines, but an analytical chemist would know that this is ethanol.

Impact of Analytical Chemistry

Analytical chemistry has been at the forefront of many discoveries in nutrition, forensics and the food and pharmaceutical industries. Doctors used to rely on the healing properties of some plants. But the problem with this strategy is that the healing properties are diluted by everything else in the plant. Through analytical chemistry, the healing properties in plants can be identified, isolated, and even recreated. Aspirin was created in this way.

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