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Organic and inorganic chemistry

Organic chemistry textbook, surrounded by things made using organic chemistryChemistry can be divided into organic and inorganic - but what’s the difference?

‘Organic chemistry’ might sound like a posher kind of chemistry you pay a bit more for at the supermarket, but the meaning chemists associate with the word ‘organic’ is much older. Organic chemistry looks at compounds based on carbon - and if that seems too specific to be one of the main branches of chemistry, bear in mind that it includes almost every chemical produced by living things, along with artificial products from plastic to explosives.

Inorganic chemistry covers everything else - for example, salts and metals. Uses for inorganic chemistry include recovering metals from waste so that they can be reused and creating new battery technology. Inorganic chemists also study the structures of atoms and molecules and the ways that they can bond.

For a time, organic and inorganic were thought to be completely separate, with the chemist Berzelius - who invented the way we write chemical formulae - suggesting that there is an unknown life force in organic compounds, and that they cannot be created from inorganic substances. The idea was proven wrong when Friedrich Wöhler created urea, an organic compound found in urine, in the lab.

Today, there are many areas where these two branches of chemistry overlap. For example, organometallic chemistry looks at compounds in which carbon - normally studied by organic chemists - bonds with a metal - normally studied by inorganic chemists.

If you study chemistry at university, you will study both organic and inorganic chemistry, with more opportunity to specialise later in the course. Some courses will have a particular focus on one branch. For example, pharmaceutical chemistry will concentrate more on organic chemistry.

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