Why study Inorganic Chemistry?

About 1 in 10 professional chemists is an inorganic chemist, but all chemists and many other scientists must work with inorganic compounds: in the laboratory, in the field or in theory.

Among chemists, organic chemists have always relied on inorganic reagents to carry out syntheses; this trend is increasing as organic synthesis turns more and more to the use of specific transition metal catalysts and nonmetallic compounds. Analytical chemists are often concerned with the detection and quantification of elements other than carbon, and often use chelating ligands of appropriate hardness or softness to concentrate and detect metallic elements. Physical and theoretical chemists are concerned with measuring or calculating the fundamental properties of inorganic and organic substances. Modern biochemists are becoming increasingly aware of the critical role played in living systems by metal ions. In addition there are many times when any chemist must make up a solution of a new type of inorganic reagent, modify a synthesis, detect an element in a new form, or study the properties of a different type of inorganic compound. At this point, the chemist needs to have some ability to anticipate the properties of inorganic compounds he or she has not dealt with in the past.

Academic chemists are not the only ones who deal in a non routine way with the compounds of elements other than carbon. Most of the largest volume industrial chemicals are inorganic compounds.

Many scientists and engineers who do not even consider themselves to be chemists must also deal with inorganic chemicals in a safe and insightful way. Biologists may have to make up a solution of an inorganic reagent, and may need to anticipate whether the material will explode on contact with water, or will fail to dissolve when they try to make up the solution! Environmental and aquatic chemistry, toxicology and medicinal chemistry, industrial chemistry, chemical safety, geochemistry, and materials science and solid state physics and chemistry all deal with a wide variety of inorganic compounds. Scientists in these fields need ways to anticipate the properties of new inorganic compounds. Chemists who develop a good fundamental understanding of the facts and principles of inorganic chemistry not only make better chemists, but they also may find opportunities to contribute to fields allied with traditional chemistry.

In recent years, the trend for inorganic chemists to interact with scientists from these other fields has paid some spectacular dividends. The mid-1980s discovery of superconductivity, a property that persists to unusually high temperatures in an unexpected class of materials known as the metal oxides resulted both in a Nobel prize for the discoverers and in a an increased study of inorganic materials. Since the discovery, the rate of these new vista-opening discoveries has grown to a point where each December the very eminent journal science began choosing a “molecule of the Year.”

Of the first four Molecules of the Year, three have been inorganic materials. The first was a biochemical material, DNA polymerase; but in 1990 the Molecule of the year was diamond, which, of course, was no new substance, but which was being produced by new methods and in new forms. The 1991 Molecule of the year was another form of the element carbon, the famous molecule C60, named “buckminsterfullerene” because its architecture and symmetry resembled those of the strong “geodesic domes” previously proposed by the environmental architect Buckminster Fuller; the chain of events leading to the discovery of this molecule began in outer space, where astronomers were seeking to explain certain unassigned spectroscopic frequencies that they thought were originating with interstellar carbon-containing molecules. The 1992 Molecule of the year was another old time inorganic molecule, one of the 10 simplest in the universe, nitric oxide. This molecule was  discovered by a medical researcher, Solomon Snyder, to be an important chemical messenger in the body, functioning as a neurotransmitter alongside of more familiar biochemical substances such as acetylcholine, and being involved intimately in the chemistry of the brain and of human sexual performance.

No one can predict what next year’s discovery of the year will be; only a few things seem reasonably predictable about these future revolutionary discoveries. More and more, they are interdisciplinary discoveries, in which inorganic chemistry plays a crucial role but by no means the only role.  These molecules may originate in the research laboratories of inorganic chemistry, in the environmental field, or in outer space; they may involve familiar old inorganic molecules that may have disappeared from inorganic texts that strive to emphasize only the current “hot” areas of research. Although no one can predict these discoveries, it does seem likely that they will be made, and more quickly exploited, by scientists who have a broad understanding of all aspects of inorganic chemistry, from the “pedestrain” realms of aqueous reaction chemistry, to modern sol-gel chemistry and to “hot” current areas such as materials science and catalysis, where this discovery might evolve from your professor’s own are of research.

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