Inorganic chemistry is the study of the synthesis and behavior of inorganic and organometallic compounds. It has applications in every aspect of the chemical industry–including catalysis, materials science, pigments, surfactants, coatings, medicine, fuel, and agriculture. Inorganic chemists are employed in fields as diverse as the mining and microchip industries, environmental science, and education. Their work is based on understanding the behavior and the analogues for inorganic elements, and how these materials can be modified, separated or used–often in product applications. It includes developing methods to recover metals from waste streams; employment as analytical chemists specializing in analysis of mined ores; performing research on the use of inorganic chemicals for treating soil. Many inorganic chemists go into industry, but they are also at universities and in government labs. Inorganic chemists who work in government say their time is increasingly spent writing grant proposals and competing for a small pool of research money.
Inorganic chemists compare their jobs to those of materials scientists and physicists. All three fields explore the relationship between physical properties and functions, but inorganic chemistry is the most keenly focused on these properties at the molecular level.
The field of inorganic chemistry has traditionally been characterized by scientists with an artistic or creative flair. Many inorganic chemists say that they were drawn to the field in part by the pretty colors of the metals in the lab and by the interesting things that could be done in the lab. They often say the opportunities for creativity and inferential thinking are what they like best about their work. Describing themselves as tinkerers, inorganic chemists like putting things together and solving problems and stress the importance of being detail oriented, precise, and persistent. Inorganic chemists describe their work as a constant challenge. "The job changes all the time," says Steve Caldwell, an inorganic chemist working at Dow Chemical. "Everyday there are a new set of issues and I have to determine which are the most important ones to work on first. It's definitely not a nine to five job."
Many traditional fields of employment like the mining industry and mineral research are shrinking, so finding a position as an inorganic chemist may be tough in these areas. The ceramics and catalyst industries employ inorganic chemists, but they are relatively small fields. The computer industry, though large and profitable relative to other areas, is not hiring inorganic chemists at the same rate as it has in the past.
However, the advanced materials area is expected to pick up and create a need for inorganic chemists in a few years. Dow's Caldwell points out that in industry, hiring follows the same cycles as business, meaning that the market should pick up, but opportunities may vary regionally. "When the microchip business is booming, there are jobs on the west coast, when the chemical industry is booming, there are jobs on the gulf coast," he explains.
Inorganic chemistry, like many scientific fields, is becoming more interdisciplinary. Breakthroughs are anticipated in the interface between fields rather than in the more traditional area. "In the future, jobs will not be filled by super specialists," says Sauer, "but by scientists with a broad base of knowledge." Even though a course of study like materials science or polymer science may appear to better position an individual for this interdisciplinary future, chemists in the field still strongly recommend getting a degree in inorganic chemistry. A degree in the basic discipline, will give a better understanding of bonding, valence, and orbital theory. In addition, students are advised to take courses outside inorganic chemistry both to prepare themselves to integrate knowledge towards problem solving as well as be flexible in today's tough job market. "Don't just stick to inorganic chemistry," Sauer says. "Learn inorganic chemistry and see how it applies in other areas." Caldwell adds, "Starting out in inorganic chemistry doesn't mean that's what you'll always do. I spent a few years doing environmental research; there are always applications in related fields."
Charles Bucknam worked as a chemist at a winery and in the pulp and paper industry before joining Newmont Metallurgical Services where he now analyzes mined ores. Bucknam discovered found that training in one industry can be effectively applied to another. For example, he says, "My background from the paper industry was to do material balances. When I came to the copper mining business, I looked at the material that was going through the mill and the gold we were getting out of it, and I realized that something was going wrong. I wanted to figure out exactly how much gold we were losing." He used his knowledge of material balances to help accomplish this.
Bucknam is essentially an analytical chemist specializing in inorganic analysis. In his career, he has held a variety of positions. He has been the person in charge of instrumental analysis, measuring gold content in a number of inorganic materials; a shift supervisor, overseeing assay and quality control labs; and a member the staff in Newmont's exploration research lab. He also developed new processes for analysis of gold automated systems for sample preparation. He says his job has given him the opportunity to continuously expand his knowledge of mineral deposits and allowed him to travel and work with mining problems all over the world.
"In each job, you need to develop a working relationship between industry and government. Every new mine has its own set of problems," Bucknam explains. Often at the heart of this relationship are the environmental concerns of the region. "We work hard to develop mining processes that have a low environmental impact," he says.
Nan Sauer grew up in an area that had suffered a lot of damage from the mining industry. As a result, she has always been concerned about protecting the environment. Sauer found a way to match this interest with her job. She has a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry and works for the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) advising industry on how to recover metals from waste streams. Her work with the aerospace industry is an example of this. "Companies like Boeing do a lot of electroplating," she explains. "Part of this process involves using a rinse bath which becomes contaminated with chemicals and inorganic materials and needs to be sent to a waste stream to recover the metals in it so that they can be reused." A similar extractant process is used to remove lead from soil and clean up contaminated industrial sites, she adds.
Sauer says she enjoys the atmosphere at Los Alamos National Laboratory where she works. Her skills and interests fit well with the USDOE new role supporting environmentally-oriented projects.
Steve Caldwell originally intended to go to medical school. "I think I'm happier as an inorganic chemist than I would have been as a doctor," he says. "I'm a tinkerer at heart. I like taking things apart and putting them back together to make them work better." Caldwell says one of the most important aspects of his job is problem solving. "You have to bring everything you have been taught to bear when solving a problem–from lab skills to library skills. You never know where the solution will come from." For example, part of Caldwell's job is to monitor Dow's chlor alkali manufacturing from an analytical perspective. "At one time, we found we were getting a lot of inconsistencies in material. It was initially assumed to be a problem in the manufacturing process; but when we looked more carefully, the variability turned out to be in the measuring process."
Many of the problems Caldwell deals with on a day-to-day basis are related to the quality of chlor alkali that customers buy from Dow. But he also is involved in research. "In research, the focus goes from solving a very narrow type of problem to solving a problem that has wider business impact. The technical focus gets shifted to a business focus," he says. "In training to be an inorganic chemist, it's important to take courses that help you integrate your knowledge. Develop a wide range of tools and practical experience, and then use all the tools you have to solve problems."
Donald Bray is a ceramics engineer. He works in a relatively small field, but one where knowledge of inorganic chemistry is vital. The basic difference in training, he says, is that inorganic chemistry courses tend to stay at the atomic level, while in ceramic chemistry (or ceramic engineering) more emphasis is on a final product. As a result, knowledge of a material's atomic structure is closely linked with the properties ultimately desired in the material.
One of the most common ceramic materials is silicon carbide. Its properties can be varied not only by the raw materials used, Bray explains, but also through processing and particle densification. In this process, the silicon carbide is sintered–heated to temperatures up to 2000° C° causing atomic movement and, ultimately, particle densification. The resulting materials are largely used in high tech applications such as space shuttle tiles, automotive seals, and ceramic turbine engines. But one more common application is the use of ceramic parts in faucets where traditionally metal has been used. "Because ceramics are used in high performance/high cost applications, this means job opportunities are somewhat limited and highly competitive right now," says Bray. "But advanced ceramics are said to be at the beginning of their growth curve. In ten years, there will be a greater need for chemists who understand advanced materials like ceramic," he adds.
Tom Szymanski was drawn to inorganic chemistry. "I was fascinated that in many biological systems, the action is at the metal center," he says. Part of the general training for inorganic chemists is to look for interactions and look for cause and effect patterns, he explains. "It's a training that's widely applicable," he adds. Szymanski now works as a project manager, supervising research on ceramics used in the hydrocarbon industry. "Our expertise is to provide detailed ceramics for catalyst applications," he says. "All the systems we work on contain metal to oxygen bonds and my job is to ask myself 'what do I know about inorganic chemistry that enables me to alter the system I have so that it works better for our customers?'" he says. Most of the projects he supervises involve cooperative efforts with customers making good communication skills as important as training in the basic discipline.
Steve Feldman has a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry, but his job is working as an analytical chemist. Use of the latest technology in analytical chemistry is one of the things Feldman likes best about his work at USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Services. One of the projects he works on is analyzing for illegal use of the growth hormone, clenbuterol, in show animals. The hormone is used in Europe, but is banned in this country because it can cause severe allergic reactions if it finds its way into the human food supply. "The USDA tests for chemicals that get into foods and veterinary medicine," he says.
"If one eliminates education, the prospects for jobs for inorganic chemist are there, but they are not plentiful," he says. Feldman advises students of inorganic chemistry to choose courses that will broaden their knowledge, and also to get experience with analytical instrumentation such as gas chromatography, HPLC, and mass spectrometry.
Sara Scott trained as an organic chemist. She worked in Germany as a NATO/National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow, and then shifted the course of her career to analytical chemistry, eventually becoming a group leader for an analytical chemistry group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She says she was ready for a change when she shifted her work to analytical chemistry and has enjoyed being in a management position. The group she manages performs analytical searches, development, and analyses of a wide variety of samples including nuclear materials, soils, dust, plastics, and alloys. "In the environmental samples we analyze, we are looking for inorganic analyses and radio chemical components," she explains. The information gained from analysis of these environmental materials can contribute to the remediation of contaminated sites. "An important part of my work is problem solving. It's nice to be doing something tangible and to be able to show that a problem you have solved has made a difference."
As a female manager in a large government lab, Scott says she has received support from her superiors. "When I took this job, I was pregnant," she says. "It never once crossed my mind that having a baby would jeopardize my career. I think it's a real credit to the management at this lab that this was not a concern for me."
Inorganic materials such as minerals, superconductive metals, ceramics, and other composites are the day-to-day concerns of inorganic chemist. Their work includes basic research, but is more often oriented towards product application. Their jobs often involve understanding the chemical properties of these materials and manipulating them, sometimes via reaction with other materials, to achieve particular desired properties.
Most inorganic chemists work in the lab. They work actively in partnership with engineers, physicists, and materials scientists; and, it is important for inorganic chemists to have a basic knowledge of these other disciplines. Inorganic chemists also spend time on project management, writing proposals, and getting funding for their work.
Inorganic chemists are employed by industries based on inorganic materials such as mining companies, microchip or computer manufacturers, and ceramics makers. They are employed by the government in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Education is also an important area of employment; inorganic chemists teach at the pre-high school, high school, college, and university levels.
Creativity and having the ability to think abstractly are two of the most common characteristics inorganic chemist ascribe to themselves. They often say they have always liked taking things apart to figure out how they worked. They enjoy exploring ideas and tend to be extremely tenacious when involved in solving a problem. As a group, inorganic chemists say they are very verbal and expressive about the work they are doing.
Scientists in the field emphasize the importance of a good instructor and a descriptive inorganic chemistry course. They also suggest taking courses in related fields to help integrate knowledge and facilitate in problem solving. A wide range of analytical tools and experience in the lab is valuable. Also stressed is the ability to communicate, both orally and in written form. As one inorganic chemist puts it, even if you are not in sales, you always have to sell your ideas.
Like many areas of science, the job market is extremely tight right now for inorganic chemists. Fields like mining and mineral research are shrinking, the ceramics industry is still small, and even the growing computer and microchip industries have been tightening their belts and are not hiring as many new scientists as they have in the past. While advanced materials is expected to pick up and to need trained inorganic chemists, this may not happen for a while. Inorganic chemists recommend broad training which will facilitate the transfer of skills to a variety of job opportunities.
To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.
ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry
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Chemists in this field recommend a strong foundation in inorganic chemistry supported by courses in related fields including physics, materials science, and chemical engineering. Some also recommend taking an experimental design course before going to graduate school. Development of communication skills is strongly urged, both to sell yourself and sell your ideas.