Inorganic chemicals are most abundant in nature, and are the basis for many vital industries. Created in naturally, synthetically, and industrially, inorganic chemicals are responsible for the fields of semiconductors, pigmentation, coating and surfactants, fuel, medicine, and chemical manufacturing. They form useful acids, bases and inert materials utilized for their specific attributes such as conductivity, catalysis, and reactive chemistry.
The term "inorganic" refers broadly to compounds that do not contain both carbon and hydrogen. While materials like minerals and metals fit tidily into this definition, there are also plenty of inorganic compounds in which a metalloid or metal is bonded with carbon. These are known as organometallic compounds.
In this article, we will cover how inorganic compounds compare to organic compounds, some examples of important inorganic substances, and different applications and industries where they are produced and used.
What Are Organic vs. Inorganic Substances?
The easiest way to describe the difference between inorganic chemicals and organic chemicals is that organic chemistry covers compounds that are based on carbon and hydrogen combinations, and may or may not contain oxygen. Inorganic chemistry deals with all the other parts of the periodic table. Though an inorganic compound may contain either hydrogen or carbon, containing both generally makes it organic. Chemistry, much like music and astronomy, is riddled with peculiar historical nomenclature. Such is the case with the division between organic and inorganic substances, for which there is no comprehensive rule.
The reason this distinction is so important to make is that organic chemistry deals with such a broad range of compounds, despite the fact that carbon is but a single atom. Carbon's outer shell has four electrons, but it acts such a way that it "wants" eight in its 'valence'. This gives it the ability to form multiple iterations of double or triple bonds, or as many as four single bonds. In the atomic world, this makes it extremely versatile. As a result, there are over nine million known organic compounds.
The terms "organic" and "inorganic" can conjure up images of living versus nonliving things. Interestingly, organic and inorganic chemistry once were divided by this distinction — however, this is no longer true. While organic compounds are responsible for life, many are not involved with living organisms. Additionally, many inorganic compounds are crucial to life. For example, organisms cannot live without water, salt, acids, bases, vitamins, minerals, and other inorganic compounds at work within our bodies. Carbon dioxide is an inorganic compound released by the body, despite its obvious carbonic composition.
Inorganic chemistry differs from organic chemistry in one especially fundamental way: It deals with far fewer compounds. Inorganic chemistry covers roughly half a million known compounds. However, these substances are so vital to our existence that the field is of equal importance. Where would we be without the production of ceramics, concrete, cement, metal, and lime? Where would the current state of technology be without the production of silicon? Where would our chemical industry be without sulfuric acid, chlorine, ammonia, and caustic soda?
Types of Inorganic Compounds
In general, there are four groups of inorganic compound types. They are divided into bases, acids, salts, and water, and they have the following properties:
- Bases: Bases are complex, involving metal atoms that have bonded with a number of hydroxyl groups. Bases have a pH above 7. When they dissolve in water, the solution is referred to as "alkaline," and they can be used to neutralize acids. In reacting with acids, the byproducts are salt and water. Their dissociation in water creates two separate ions: generally a metal cation such as NH4+ and an anion such as OH–. Some examples are sodium hydroxide and copper oxide.
- Acids: These consist of an atom of hydrogen and an acid radical. Acids have a pH lower than 7. They can also form with oxygen instead of hydrogen, a compound known as an oxoacid. Some examples of oxoacids are HNO3 and H2SO3, known respectively as nitric and sulfurous acid. Some examples of regular acids are HCl and HF, known respectively as hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid.
- Salts: Salts are made of a residual of acid plus a metal. They can be divided into six different classes: medium, acid, basic, double, mixed, and complex. Medium salts only dissociate into a metal cation and an acid radical anion. Acid salts yield the same plus a hydrogen cation. Basic salts dissociate into cations of metal and anions of both hydroxyl and acid radicals. Double salts dissociate into two cations and one anion, while mixed salts yield one cation and two anions. Complex salts yield complex results in solution.
- Water: The most abundant compound on earth is an inorganic one. Water is beautifully strange, to the point of being a scientific anomaly — it expands instead of contracts when it freezes, it can stay liquid below freezing and then "supercool" when disturbed, and it has five phases as a liquid and 14 phases as a solid. There are some strange quantum mechanical properties of water as well, which scientists are continuously seeking to better understand.
Note that these are the broadest categories of inorganic compounds. There are also loads of substances, including monatomic ones, that fall under the category of inorganic.
Examples of Inorganic Compounds and Substances (from A to Z)
Here are some common inorganic compounds and what they are used for:
- Ammonia: Ammonia is used for fertilizers to maintaining lawns, plants, and crops, as well as industrially in industrial and household cleaners.
- Antimony: On its own, it is brittle and easily broken, but antimony is used in solder, paints, ceramics, sheet metal, pipes, bearings, pewter, lead batteries, and castings — antimony oxide often serves as a fire retardant in textiles and composites.
- Arsenic: While copper chromated arsenic (CCA) has been discontinued to make pressure-treated lumber for residences, industrial consumers still use it. Arsenic compounds also form certain pesticides.
- Asbestos: Due to its heat resistance, asbestos has long been used as a fire retardant. It is also used in brake pads, packaging, and more.
- Barium: Barium compounds form drilling muds used by the gas and oil sector to lubricate drills, as well as bricks, glass, rubber, paint, and ceramics. Other primary uses include medical applications such as barium sulfate used as a contrast dye that delineates your upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract on x-rays and reveals any abnormalities.
- Beryllium: Compounds with beryllium can be found in nuclear reactors, space-grade structural material, X-ray devices, instruments, mirrors, computers, dental bridges, and sports equipment.
- Boron: Borates are useful in producing glass, as well as in tanning leather. You can also find them in soaps, high-performance fuel, pesticides, and flame retardants.
- Cadmium: Cadmium is used in batteries, metallic pigments, plastics, and more.
- Chlorine: One of the most widely used disinfectants, chlorine also serves as bleach for paper and fabrics.
- Chromium: This is an essential nutrient and is used for chrome finishing, preserving wood, tanning leather, and making steel.
- Cobalt: Radioactive isotopes of cobalt are used in medicine, while cobalt itself is a large part of structural materials, magnets, cutting tools, ceramics, and paint.
- Copper: Used to coat modern-day pennies, copper also makes brass and bronze when made into an alloy with other metals. Copper compounds make pesticides, treat water, and act as a preservative.
- Cyanide: Although lethal, cyanide has practical uses such as metallurgy, production of organic chemicals, making plastics, mining, and electroplating.
- Fluorine and Fluorides: Fluorine makes up part of many compounds. Chemicals, steel, plastics, dyes, dental products, and much more rely on fluorides.
- Hydrogen Chloride: This corrosive substance is used for pickling, tanning, making products, and dissolving. Hydrochloric acid is the result of combining hydrogen chloride with water.
- Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN): This pale-blue liquid is volatile and explosive, and is usually found in diluted form.
- Hydrogen Fluoride (HF): This compound forms hydrofluoric acid when it dissolves in water, which is used as a corrosive in etching glass.
- Hydrogen Sulfide Carbonyl Sulfide: This odorous gas results from breakdown of proteins and can be detected coming from sewers and refineries.
- Iodine: Iodine serves as a disinfectant, an essential nutrient usually added to salt, and a radioactive isotope.
- Lead: Lead is used in medicine to shield organs from harmful X-rays, while it is also used in ammunition, batteries, metals, and more.
- Manganese: Manganese is an essential nutrient, and it can serve as a fuel additive in gasoline. It is found in foods like cereal and tea.
- Mercury: Mercury on its own is quick to form salts with other elements like oxygen and sulfur.
- Mercury, Metallic: Perhaps best known for its role in thermometers, the metallic form of mercury also aids in producing gaseous chlorine and caustic soda. It is used in batteries and skin creams as well.
- Nickel: Used famously for nickel plating, this element also helps color ceramics and make batteries.
- Radon: Though poisonous to us on its own, radon is useful in predicting earthquakes and exploring for petroleum.
- Selenium: Selenium is most widely consumed by the electronics industry, though it is useful in nutrition, as part of glass, and in pigments, plastics, inks, and rubber.
- Selenium Hexafluoride: This compound is useful for insulating electricity when a gaseous insulator is required.
- Silica: This is another name for silicon dioxide, and it has many different forms. Silica is broadly used in paints, rubber and composites, as well as an inert carrier in pharmaceuticals.
- Silver: Silver is used for ornaments, jewelry, silverware, dental fillings, electronics, photograph development, disinfecting water, and as an aid to help people quit smoking.
- Strontium: Compounds of strontium are useful in manufacturing pyrotechnics, pigments for paint, fluorescent lighting, medicine, and glass and ceramic products.
- Sulfur Dioxide: This pungent gas is produced during volcanic eruptions and from burning fossil fuels.
- Synthetic Vitreous Fibers: Divided into glass fibers, mineral wool, and refractory ceramic fibers, these fibers are used for insulation. Refractory ceramic fibers are used for insulating furnaces since asbestos is carcinogenic and is not as widely used anymore.
- Thallium: Electronics in the semiconductor world, including closures and switches, rely on thallium. Certain medical glass also uses thallium.
- Thorium: Thorium is used in mantles for gas lanterns, aerospace metals, nuclear reactions, and ceramics.
- Tin and Its Compounds: Tin is extremely widely used. It comprises food cans and is used in making plastics, pipes, paints, pesticide products, and much more.
- Titanium Tetrachloride: This compound is what manufacturers use to make metallic titanium. Additionally, it forms white paint pigments and various other products and chemicals.
- Tungsten: Tungsten has many uses: light bulbs, electrodes in welding, golf clubs, fishing weights, needles for record players, bullets, X-ray tubes, tools, gyroscope wheels, and much more.
- Uranium: Uranium's isotope 235U is what creates power in nuclear reactors and weaponry.
- Vanadium: Certain types of steel use vanadium, and these are most commonly found in ball bearings, springs, and other parts in automobiles. In the United States, the majority of vanadium extracted goes into steel production.
- Zinc: Zinc prevents rust on cars and machinery, in alloys, rubber, preservatives for wood, ointments, dyes, and paint.
Where Is Inorganic Chemistry Used?
Given that inorganic compounds have so many widespread uses — chemical catalysts, paint, pesticides, jewelry, medicine, fuel, and much more — they are used in a huge number of industries. Whether it is in manufacturing microchips or mining for raw materials, inorganic chemistry is crucial for many processes.
Inorganic chemists can find work for the government, in industry, among academic institutions, and in the private sector. Often, the job is similar to that of a physicist or material scientist — the primary objective is to study the molecular realm of physical attributes and behavior of substances. Some of the industries that employ inorganic chemists include:
- Environmental Science: Contamination is an ever-present threat to the natural world. Inorganic scientists are constantly needed to explore the effects of chemicals and additives to the environment. This includes studies of chemistry in the atmosphere, in water, and in the soil. Often, inorganic scientists must discern what chemicals are naturally present in an environment before contamination.
- Microchips: Silicon and other inorganic compounds form the basis for electronic circuitry, and with the exponentially increasing role of technology in today's world, this requirement is growing stronger. Inorganic chemists are needed for the process of infusing trace elements into thin surfaces of semiconductors, as well as sensors for medical devices. This type of work is high-precision and is very rewarding for those who enjoy detail-oriented work.
- Plastics and Fibers: This is a massive field with a huge number of manufacturers. Fibers can include textiles, microfibers, polymers, paper, carbon fiber, polyethylene, and more. Plastics comprise everything from consumer electronics to spacecraft.
- Paint and Pigments: Most materials are treated with paint, pigments, or surface coatings. Inorganic pigments are typically made from metallic oxides or salts. These are used for giving color to plastics, fabrics, food, paint, and many other materials.
- Mining: Essentially every material that isn't agriculturally or scientifically produced has to be extracted from the earth. Whether it is iron ore, uranium, limestone, oil, or natural gas, mining is in constant need of inorganic chemists to ensure smooth operations.
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