"How did chemistry develop? What is happening in the field of chemistry today? What can I do with a chemistry degree?"—these are all good questions, and 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 student can take as they explore research opportunities.
Pure and Applied Research
The study of modern chemistry can be split into two types of research: pure and applied. Chemists who study pure chemistry do research primarily to advance mankind's understanding of chemistry. Pure chemistry is concerned with a greater understanding of the theories behind how matter is changing in chemical reactions. Pure chemists tend to be less concerned with direct applications of the research that they are doing. That is not to say that pure chemistry can never lead to a real-world application but, rather, that a potential application is not the primary motivation for doing the research in the first place. Applied chemistry is chemistry that is directed toward a specific practical goal or application. The video below further describes applied research.
Pure Research Examples
The early history of chemistry contains many examples of pure research. 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. 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. Below are some examples of questions that where pure research would be used:
- How was the universe formed?
- Is there life on Mars?
- What are protons, neutrons, and electrons composed of?
- What are the properties of boron?
Applied Research Examples
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 a new product. Research on laundry detergents will probably not give us any new concepts about soap, but will help us to develop materials that get our clothes cleaner, use less water, and create lower amounts of pollution. Petroleum companies use applied research 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.
The line between pure chemistry and applied chemistry is not always distinct. What may start out as simply asking a question may result is 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 would 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 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.
- What is pure research?
- What is applied research?
- Give one example of pure research.
- Give on example of applied research.
- Is it always easy to classify research as pure or applied? Explain your answer.