MadSci Network: Chemistry

Re: What does a Physical Chemist do? I looked in the MadLib and the archives

Date: Wed Apr 1 17:02:06 1998
Posted By: John Christie, Faculty, School of Chemistry, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia
Area of science: Chemistry
ID: 891128709.Ch

Physical Chemists work in a lot of very different areas of specialization. 
The common theme is that they are interested in physical and chemical 
properties, rather than in particular compounds.

Some of the main traditional areas of physical chemistry are:
1. Thermodynamics and Thermochemistry.
Dealing with the heat that is given off in various reactions, the relative 
energies of different molecules, energy transformation in chemical systems, 
chemical equilibrium, and non-equilibrium systems

2. Reaction Kinetics.
How the rates of reactions vary with the concentrations of the substances 
involved, with temperature, and with other factors. How to measure, deduce, 
and/or predict these rates. How to break a complicated reaction down into a 
series of simnple steps -- investigation of reaction mechanism. Reaction in 
flow systems, competition between reaction and diffusion. Investigating 

3. Electrochemistry.
Mechanisms of oxidation and reduction and electrolysis. Conductance of 
ionic solutions. Use of electricity in chemical reactions and in chemical 

4. Spectroscopy.
How various substances absorb or emit light in various frequency regions of 
the electromagnetic spectrum. How this relates to molecular structure. How 
it can be used in chemical analysis.

5. Colloid and surface chemistry.
How chemical and physical properties can change drastically at phase 
boundaries, and how this can be exploited in a variety of chemical 

6. Theoretical chemistry
Large quantum mechanical calculations on computers, that attempt to explain 
molecular structures in terms of fundamental physics. And then a further 
attempt to explain the physical and chemical properties of various 
compounds in terms of their molecular structures.

Physical chemists are often concerned with developing new types of 
instruments for measuring different types of data. The aim is to provide 
tools both for scientific purposes -- obtaining data that gives new insight 
into the way that chemical systems work -- and for technological purposes -
- opening up a new dimension in chemical analysis. Many other physical 
chemists spend a lot of time with computer modelling of chemical systems in 
various ways.

You can see that physical chemists do many different types of things, and I 
have not covered all of them. It is also true that in modern chemistry 
there is no sharp division between physical chemistry and the other 
branches of chemistry. But I hope this has given you some idea.

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