What Is Analytical Chemistry?

by Lucy Bell-Young

Analytical chemistry is a specialised discipline that deals with obtaining, processing, and presenting both the qualitative and quantitative data of substances. Analytical chemists uncover a substance’s composition and structure at both atomic and molecular levels. 

All students who major in chemistry must acquire skills in this subjects to be successful in their chosen careers. Read on to find out more about analytical chemistry.

Researcher with glass laboratory chemical test tubes with liquid for analytical purposes

What Is Analytical Chemistry Used For?

Analytical chemistry has applications that range far and wide, including but not limited to:

  • Medicine: Diagnostic tests require analytical chemistry techniques, from blood typing to determining genetic signatures, such as in the case of polymerase chain reaction tests for viruses.
  • Environmental science: Monitoring the levels of pollutants in the environment requires fast and reliable analyses. In some cases, previously unknown pollutants can be detected and analysed by employing these techniques.
  • Industrial manufacturing: Highly precise amounts of ingredients and accurate proportions of materials are necessary in many manufacturing processes, and analytical chemistry has a crucial role in maintaining the quality assurance of these substances. 
  • Materials science: Developing new types of materials, such as superconductors, superinsulators, ultra-light solids, and nano-size machines, requires a high degree of precision and accuracy. Analytical chemistry helps advance research in materials science.
  • Forensics: From detecting traces of blood at a crime scene to determining unique genetic markers, analytical chemistry has a central role in solving crimes.

The reason this field is so crucial to innumerable branches of science and industry is because it can be used to solve the unknown. For example, if a lot of fish suddenly die in a lake, analytical chemistry can help trace the source of the problem and identify the toxic substances that may have poisoned them.

Similarly, there are many types of unknowns that can be encountered in industrial manufacturing that analytical chemistry can help to identify. This is important because precision in quantifying the various chemicals or impurities present in manufactured goods is crucial to ensuring the quality and safety of products. Precision can never be over-emphasised when it comes to manufacturing medicines, processing food or bottling beverages, and this level of quality control is only possible with analytical chemistry.

A water sample from the river.
Analytical chemistry can be used to identify and trace toxic substances in rivers

Techniques Used In Analytical Chemistry

In many cases, the analytical component of quality control in manufacturing is automated. From measuring the volumes of liquids to checking the proportions of ingredients, artificial intelligence is now used to make precise measurements at lightning speed, with the help of sensors.

But detailed laboratory analyses aren’t only necessary to identify the unknown contaminants in batches of products, but to also trace the origin of the contamination itself. To do this, various analytical chemistry techniques are used to determine the composition and structure of substances. These are some of the common methods:

  • Flame test: The flame test can be performed to either confirm or deny the presence of certain ions in aqueous solutions. The flame test determines this based on the colours that substances burn when subjected to a flame. However, this method has been made obsolete by more precise tests, such as spectroscopy. 
  • Spectroscopy: All elements and molecules emit certain wavelengths of electromagnetic waves when subjected to heat. These are known as the spectroscopic signature. Therefore, a spectroscope can be used to determine the chemical composition of a substance, providing a more accurate analysis than using a flame. 
  • Gravimetric analysis: This is a quantitative form of chemical analysis that is used to quantify the mass of an unknown substance. It involves weighing the analyte in its initial state, then doing this again after the analyte has been separated. For example, the amount of water in a hydrous substance can be determined by weighing it before and after it has dried. There are many separation techniques that can be used to facilitate gravimetric analysis.
  • Separation techniques: A substance can be analysed more precisely by separating it into its constituent parts. Some examples of separation techniques include chromatography, electrophoresis, and field flow fractionation.
  • Volumetric analysis: This involves titration techniques that determine at what point (in terms of volume proportions) a chemical reaction stops. 
Spectroscopy labeled vector illustration
Spectroscopy is a technique used in analytical chemistry that identifies elements based on their electromagnetic wavelength

Why Study Analytical Chemistry?

Analytical skills are fundamental skills that all science students must master while at university or undergoing apprenticeship training. Since analytical chemistry is a core part of chemistry, there’s a good chance you’re already studying it, or have at least been introduced to its concepts. But even if you’re not a chemistry major, this subject is still crucial in all STEM courses and will help to refine your professional skills when pursuing a career in chemistry.

  • Studying this subjects prepares science students for the rigors and challenges of real-life issues at the workplace 
  • From dealing with simple and routine tasks to solving complex problems at work, analytical skills are crucial in chemistry careers
  • Chemistry hinges on both mathematical and logical analyses. If you want a successful career in this field, you must be able to qualify and quantify data in organised and coherent ways

Analytical chemistry is mainly about being able to reduce complex problems into simpler components that are easy to understand. In fact, most chemistry problems you’ll encounter in your study and practice of chemistry will involve chemical analysis. Precise and accurate measurements and mathematical skills will be your allies in these situations, so learning how to apply them effectively is crucial. 

What Do You Study In Analytical Chemistry?

Analytical chemistry employs both qualitative and quantitative methods in determining the compositions and molecular structures of analysed substances. In order to accomplish this, you must learn how to use statistical methods and various laboratory instruments and techniques. Generally, you need to study the following basic analytical methodologies:

  • Spectroscopy
  • Acid-base methods
  • Potentiometry
  • Chromatography

Beyond learning how to use the instruments associated with these analytical methodologies, you must also learn the scientific concepts and mathematical tools necessary to understand the analytical process itself. Therefore, when studying this subject, you’ll be trained in different laboratory techniques and how to use the various instruments they involve. 

Two students in a chemistry lab analyzing under microscope under supervision of a teacher
Analytical chemistry teaches core skills to students and is a key branch of many science subjects

What Is An MSc In Analytical Chemistry Distance Learning?

If you’re looking to pursue a Masters in analytical chemistry but need to work at the same time, an MSc in analytical chemistry distance learning might be what you’re looking for. This is an academic graduate programme offered by universities like the University of Manchester to qualified professional chemists who are already working. 

Distance learning programs are beneficial because they allow you to work and study at the same time by facilitating online coursework and providing lectures conducted through video chats.

Find out more about chemistry education in our chemistry education resources hub.


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