What is the Difference Between Pure & Applied Chemistry?

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Pure and applied chemistry are two branches of the same tree. Though different fields, they also work together quite well. In this lesson, we will look at both pure and applied chemistry to understand how they are different, as well as see examples of each.

The Study of Matter

There is one common thread that is shared by everything on Earth: we are all made of matter. Though we may be built with different types of atoms and molecules, at our core, this is the basic structure of every living and non-living thing. The study of matter and its properties is the field of chemistry. While chemistry does involve some cool explosions and bubbly solutions, there's far more to it than this. In fact, chemistry can be divided into two categories: pure and applied.

Pure Chemistry

Scientists love to do research, and one type of research they perform is pure research. This is the 'how', 'what', and 'why' of science. Pure chemistry then is pure research in the field of chemistry. This branch of research asks questions such as these:

  • What are the properties of this gas?
  • How do these two chemicals behave together?
  • Why did that just explode?

Pure chemistry looks at what you might call the 'raw' aspects of matter. How things work, why they work, what they are made of, and how they behave are all things that pure chemistry tries to understand. In essence, you are looking at the nuts and bolts of chemistry. You want to define, describe, clarify, and comprehend matter.

Mercury is unusual because it is a metal that is liquid at room temperature.
liquid mercury

If you are a curious person that loves to take things apart and see what makes them tick, then pure chemistry just might be for you. For example, mercury is an interesting element because it is a metal that is liquid at room temperature. Understanding why this is true is a question for pure chemistry. Another good question for pure chemistry is why water expands when it freezes. This is also a unique property among elements, and an interesting one to explore and learn about.

Applied Chemistry

On the other hand, applied research looks at how our knowledge of things can be useful. In other words, it's about applying our knowledge to improve things or find solutions to problems. Therefore, applied chemistry uses our existing knowledge about all things chemistry (often from pure chemistry) and tries to make it useful.

For example, applied chemistry isn't a field concerned with identifying new properties of candle wax, but it is definitely interested in designing a variety of different scents. This field is also not going to present us with major revelations about the properties of soap, but it just might give us soaps that clean our floors more efficiently or leave our windows with fewer streaks.

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