Is Chemistry Really Just Applied Physics? How?

Students and startups often wonder if chemistry is just applied physics, and the short answer is yes, but it’s much more than that. Chemistry is an incredibly complex science, but at its core, you can boil it down to two broad categories: physical processes and chemical reactions. 

We reason applied physics and chemistry are so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate them completely. So, we prepared this post to show how the two disciplines intersect.

We’ll define physics and chemistry and then examine how they interact. This post will also briefly discuss the relationship between physical processes and chemical reactions. We’ll then discuss shared tools and methodology, contrasting and comparing the two disciplines.

What Is Applied Physics?

Applied physics is the application of physical laws and theories to solve practical problems. It focuses on understanding how matter, energy, motion, and force interact in real-world situations. Applied physicists use mathematics to understand and explain these phenomena. 

Examples of applied physics include niches like:

  • Aircraft design.
  • Medical imaging technologies such as ultrasound and MRI.
  • Nanotechnology and nanomaterials.
  • Robotics.
  • Renewable energy sources.

What Is Chemistry? 

Chemistry studies matter and its interactions with other forms of matter and energy. It deals with elements, atoms, molecules, their structure, properties, and reactions to form new compounds. Examples of chemistry include: 

  • Polymer science.
  • Pharmaceuticals. 
  • Industrial processes. 
  • Environmental protection and remediation. 
  • Food science and nutrition. 
  • Forensic sciences. 

The Fundamental Link Between Chemistry and Physics

At the most basic level, physics and chemistry are linked by what is known as the Conservation of Matter. This law states that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form. This principle allows us to understand how physical processes and chemical reactions co-occur. 

The following are some examples of links between physics and chemistry:

1. Atomic and Molecular Structure

Atomic and molecular structures form the foundation of both chemistry and physics. In chemistry, understanding the arrangement of atoms within molecules is crucial for explaining and predicting chemical reactions and properties. In physics, atomic and molecular structures are essential for describing the behavior of matter and the interactions between particles.

Quantum Mechanics

Quantum mechanics plays a central role in understanding electron behavior and energy levels. It does so by describing how particles behave on a microscopic scale, especially atoms and subatomic particles.

It explains concepts like wave-particle duality, where particles like electrons exhibit both wave-like and particle-like properties. This understanding of energy levels is essential for explaining chemical bonding, molecular stability, and the behavior of materials.

2. Interactions and Forces

Understanding these interactions is crucial in both chemistry and physics. For instance, knowing how electromagnetic forces hold atoms together in molecules helps predict their stability and reactivity. Similarly, understanding the behavior of subatomic particles requires knowledge of the weak and strong forces.

Electromagnetic Force

Electromagnetic forces govern interactions between charged particles, such as electrons and protons. In chemistry, this force is crucial for understanding:

  • Chemical bonding.
  • Molecular interactions.
  • The behavior of ions in solutions. 

In physics, it explains phenomena like electricity, magnetism, and the behavior of electromagnetic waves.

Weak and Strong Forces

The weak force is responsible for certain types of nuclear reactions, such as beta decay, and is crucial for understanding processes in particle physics. The strong force binds protons and neutrons together in atomic nuclei, giving rise to the stability of matter.

These concepts are essential for understanding nuclear physics, radioactivity, and the origin of elements. Chemists also rely on this knowledge to understand the behavior of elements in different situations.

Gravitational Force

While gravity is a weaker force on the atomic and molecular scale, it becomes significant on larger scales. It’s essential in physics for explaining celestial motion and the behavior of astronomical objects.

Physicists apply concepts like Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation to understand motions in the universe and use its equations to solve problems. In chemistry, understanding this force helps explain why certain molecules are more or less stable than others.

Overlapping Concepts in Chemistry and Physics

There are many concepts and tools that both fields share, such as thermodynamics, spectroscopy, and quantum mechanics. Here’s a look at some of the most important ones:

1. Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics deals with energy transfer and transformations. It provides fundamental principles for both chemistry and physics. 

Some of the concepts that help to predict whether a chemical reaction is spontaneous or not include:

  • Entropy.
  • Enthalpy.
  • Gibbs free energy. 

In physics, thermodynamics explains processes like heat engines and the behavior of gasses. This knowledge is essential for understanding physical changes and energy transfer in systems.

2. Kinetics

Kinetics is the study of reaction rates and mechanisms. It bridges the gap between chemistry and physics by explaining how reactions occur on a molecular level. Kinetics helps determine the speed of reactions and provides insights into factors influencing reaction rates, such as temperature, concentration, and catalysts.

3. Spectroscopy

Spectroscopic techniques involve the interaction of light with matter. In both chemistry and physics, spectroscopy helps to study molecular properties, such as energy levels, molecular structure, and chemical composition. 

Different types of spectroscopy, such as UV-Vis, infrared, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), provide valuable information about molecules.

4. Quantum Mechanics

We described quantum mechanics earlier in this post. Basically, it helps interpret spectroscopic data and provides insights into molecular behavior. It underpins spectroscopy by explaining how atoms and molecules interact with electromagnetic radiation. 

Chemistry’s Unique Domain

1. Emergence of New Properties

The arrangement of atoms and molecules in chemical substances leads to emergent properties distinct from those of individual atoms. These emergent properties result from interactions and bonding between atoms, creating new molecular entities with unique characteristics.

Examples of chemical reactions producing emergent properties:

A Combustion: When hydrocarbons react with oxygen, the byproducts are carbon dioxide, water, and energy released through heat and light. The emergent properties here include the release of energy and the generation of heat and light.

B Polymerization: The reaction of monomers to form polymers results in materials with different physical properties. For instance, the polymerization of ethene produces polyethylene with properties such as flexibility and strength.

C Neutralization: An acid and a base reaction produces water and salt. The emergent properties include the change in pH and the formation of a neutral substance.

2. Study of Compounds and Molecules

Chemistry focuses on compounds’ and molecules’ composition, structure, and behavior. It explores how atoms are bonded together to form various substances and how these substances interact and transform through chemical reactions.

Contrast with Physics 

We already explained the difference between physics and chemistry, but here’s a quick summary. 

While chemistry deals with compounds and molecules, physics often focuses on fundamental particles and forces. Physics aims to understand the fundamental laws that govern the behavior of matter and energy, often at a more abstract and theoretical level.

Collaborative Nature of Chemistry and Physics

1. Multidisciplinary Research

Collaborative research between chemistry and physics occurs in disciplines like materials science and physical chemistry. These fields explore materials’ physical and chemical properties, leading to advancements in both disciplines.

For example, nanotechnology involves both chemistry and physics to design and manipulate materials at the nanoscale. Researchers collaborate to create new materials with unique properties, such as enhanced conductivity or improved catalytic activity.

Advancements in one field led to breakthroughs in the other. The discovery of superconductors, which exhibit zero electrical resistance, involves collaborative efforts between physicists and chemists. Understanding the underlying principles requires insights from both disciplines.

2. Shared Tools and Techniques

Some of the common experimental methods and tools between chemistry and applied physics include:

  • Microscopy: Techniques like electron microscopy are essential for studying the structure and behavior of materials at the atomic and molecular levels, benefiting both disciplines.
  • Computational Modeling: Advanced computational methods are used in both fields to simulate and predict molecular structures, properties, and reactions.

Advancements in Technology Benefiting Both Disciplines 

The development of high-resolution imaging techniques, such as atomic force microscopy, has allowed researchers in both chemistry and physics to visualize and manipulate matter at unprecedented scales. 

Similarly, advancements in data analysis and computational power have revolutionized both fields, enabling simulations and predictions that were previously challenging.

At Advanced Chemtech, we are proud to be a leader in providing products for both research and pharmaceutical markets. We understand the importance of collaboration between chemistry and physics, from basic knowledge to advanced technologies.

Talk to us today to find out how we can help you with your research and development needs. 

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