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Chemistry LibreTexts

1.3: Solving Society’s Problems - Scientific Research

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  • Learning Objective

    • Know the meaning and examples of pure and applied research.

    How did chemistry develop? What is happening in the field of chemistry today? What career can a chemistry degree apply to?  These are all good questions that should be asked by students interested in chemistry. Research in chemistry (or any other field, for that matter) is interesting and challenging. But there are different directions a person can take as they explore research opportunities.

    Types of Research

    In science, two types of research are generally discussed: pure and applied. Pure research focuses on answering basic questions such as, "how do gases behave?" Applied research is involved in the process of developing specific preparations for a gas, in order for it to be produced and delivered efficiently and economically. This division sounds like it would be easy to make, but sometimes we cannot draw a clear line between what is "pure" and what is "applied".

    Examples of "Pure" Research

    A lot of "pure" research is of the "what is this?" or "how does it work?" variety. The early history of chemistry contains many examples. The ancient Greek philosophers debated the composition of matter (Earth? Air? Fire? Water? All of the above?). They weren't going to do anything with their knowledge—they just wanted to know.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) Ancient Greek philosophers.

    Studies on the elements (especially after Mendeleev's periodic table was published) were primarily "pure" research types of experiments. Does this element exist? What are its properties? The scientists did not have any practical application in mind, but were curious about the world around them.

    Examples of "Applied" Research

    There is a great deal of "applied" research taking place today. In general, no new science principles are discovered, but existing knowledge is used to develop new products. Research on laundry detergents will probably not offer any new concepts of soap, but will help us develop materials that get our clothes cleaner, use less water, and create lower amounts of pollution.

    A lot of research is done by petroleum companies. They want to find better ways to power vehicles, better lubricants to cut down on engine wear, and better ways to lower air pollution. These companies will use information that is readily available to come up with new products.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) A Gasoline pump.

    Some "In-Between" Examples

    Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between pure and applied research. What may start out as simply asking a question may result in some very useful information. If scientists are studying the biochemistry of a microorganism that causes a disease, they may soon find information that would suggest a way to make a chemical that will inactivate the microorganism. The compound could be used to learn more about the biochemistry, but could also be used to cure the disease.

    Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen in the bloodstream. Scientists studied hemoglobin simply to learn how it worked. Out of this research came an understanding of how the protein changes shape when oxygen attaches to it. This information was then applied to help patients with sickle cell anemia, a disorder caused by an abnormal hemoglobin structure that makes hemoglobin molecules clump up when oxygen leaves the protein. Basic knowledge of protein structure led to an improved understanding of a wide-spread disease and opened the door for the development of treatments.


    • Pure research focuses on understanding basic properties and processes.
    • Applied research focuses on the use of information to create useful materials.
    • Sometimes there is no clear line between pure and applied research.

    Contributors and Attributions

    • CK-12 Foundation by Sharon Bewick, Richard Parsons, Therese Forsythe, Shonna Robinson, and Jean Dupon.