Organic Chemistry -vs- Inorganic Chemistry

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A chemistry lab is an interesting place – just be careful what you touch. Image by Karpati Gabor

Chemistry is the study of the interactions of  matter and energy: Of the elements and their compounds.  For most practical purposes, there are some 90 elements the chemist devotes his attention to.

For feasibility, we divide chemistry up into a number of genres, including analytical chemistry, physical chemistry, quantum chemistry, biochemistry, inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry. The last two just listed might seem to be unequally divided up, as inorganic chemistry covers almost all of the elements, whereas organic chemistry focuses upon only one: carbon.

This is not to say other elements are not included along with the carbon. In fact, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen, phosphorous and many other elements play an important role in organic chemistry. They simply are not the key players.

Inorganic Chemistry

Inorganic chemistry is generally the first form of chemistry the student learns. He or she will discover the metals and the non-metals. Acids, bases and salts will quickly join the discussion. Oxidation and reduction—the so-called redox equations—will soon take center stage. Names such as sodium chloride, phosphoric acid, potassium nitrate and nickel sulfate will become part of the student’s vocabulary, and he will use terms such as reactions, half-reactions and other stoichiometric vocabulary. Perhaps they will cover titration, or chemical analysis, as well, although that is more often associated with analytical chemistry. Finally, the semester ends.

Organic Chemistry

If the student had the patience to endure inorganic chemistry, he or she might choose to pursue organic chemistry. The world of the organic chemist is totally different from that of the inorganic chemist. In the organic laboratory, one might see long tables with vertical crisscrossing metal latticework from which to suspend glassware. Color-coded valves that provide air, water, gas or vacuum will also be present, as will an abundance of sinks.

Blackboards with chalk diagrams of carbon atoms linked in a row and all manner of hydrogen atoms branching off. Single bonds will abound, but double and even triple bonds will appear. This is because carbon is one of only a few elements that bond to itself to form straight chains, branched chains, rings, and 3-dimensional shapes, such as the infamous cubane, C8H8.

Yes, silicon and boron bond to themselves, but they are of far lesser significance than the many structures of carbon are. We know many millions of organic compounds—the compounds of carbon— to exist. Some of them are drugs, after all, the chemistry of carbon is the chemistry of life itself.

Some organic compounds are used in the formation of specialty fabrics. For instance, dissolving thread and dissolving fabrics used in surgeries are the product of the organic chemist.  Some organic compounds are useful as fire-retardants. Pesticides make the farmer’s life simpler. Lacquers and paints may contain organic compounds. We use some in plastics and synthetic rubber; others as refrigerants.

Organic Chemistry Subdivided

Organic chemistry is so broad, in fact, that it itself is subdivided. One example of that is biochemistry, the study of the chemical processes within biological organisms. And then, there’s the physical organic chemist, and…

Organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry may be complex, but they are also fascinating. Don’t be put off by the terms and processes, learn the dance of the elements and you’ll better appreciate the wide variety of compounds all around.

Resources

American Chemical Society. Virtual Chemistry and Simulations. (2013). Accessed October 10, 2013.

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