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Chemistry LibreTexts

1.3: Common Analytical Problems

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  • Many problems in analytical chemistry begin with the need to identify what is present in a sample. This is the scope of a qualitative analysis, examples of which include identifying the products of a chemical reaction, screening an athlete’s urine for a performance-enhancing drug, or determining the spatial distribution of Pb on the surface of an airborne particulate. An early challenge for analytical chemists was developing simple chemical tests to identify inorganic ions and organic functional groups. The classical laboratory courses in inorganic and organic qualitative analysis, still taught at some schools, are based on this work.

    See, for example, the following laboratory textbooks: (a) Sorum, C. H.; Lagowski, J. J. Introduction to Semimicro Qualitative Analysis, 5th Ed.; Prentice-Hall: Englewood, NJ, 1977; (b) Shriner, R. L.; Fuson, R. C.; Curtin, D. Y. The Systematic Identification of Organic Compounds, 5th Ed.; John Wiley and Sons: New York, 1964.

    Modern methods for qualitative analysis rely on instrumental techniques, such as infrared (IR) spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, and mass spectrometry (MS). Because these qualitative applications are covered adequately elsewhere in the undergraduate curriculum, typically in organic chemistry, they receive no further consideration in this text.

    Perhaps the most common analytical problem is a quantitative analysis, examples of which include the elemental analysis of a newly synthesized compound, measuring the concentration of glucose in blood, or determining the difference between the bulk and the surface concentrations of Cr in steel. Much of the analytical work in clinical, pharmaceutical, environmental, and industrial labs involves developing new quantitative methods to detect trace amounts of chemical species in complex samples. Most of the examples in this text are of quantitative analyses.

    Another important area of analytical chemistry, which receives some attention in this text, are methods for characterizing physical and chemical properties. The determination of chemical structure, of equilibrium constants, of particle size, and of surface structure are examples of a characterization analysis.

    The purpose of a qualitative, a quantitative, or a characterization analysis is to solve a problem associated with a particular sample. The purpose of a fundamental analysis, on the other hand, is to improve our understanding of the theory that supports an analytical method and to understand better an analytical method’s limitations.

    A good resource for current examples of qualitative, quantitative, characterization, and fundamental analyses is Analytical Chemistry’s annual review issue that highlights fundamental and applied research in analytical chemistry. Examples of review articles in the 2015 issue include “Analytical Chemistry in Archaeological Research,” “Recent Developments in Paper-Based Microfluidic Devices,” and “Vibrational Spectroscopy: Recent Developments to Revolutionize Forensic Science.”

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