Physical chemistry

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Within the discipline of chemistry, physical chemistry is an area of specialty which seeks to understand macroscopic chemical properties and reactions in terms of microscopic atomic and molecular phenomena. Towards this end, physical chemistry draws heavily on principles of physics and mathematics. Physical chemistry is comprised of three key areas of study: thermodynamics, kinetics, and quantum chemistry.

Modern physical chemistry

Modern physical chemistry is firmly grounded upon physics and applied mathematics. Important areas of study include thermochemistry (chemical thermodynamics), chemical kinetics, statistical chemistry. quantum chemistry, statistical mechanics, electrochemistry, surface and solid state chemistry, and spectroscopy. Physical chemistry is also fundamental to modern materials science. Physical chemistry now strongly overlaps with chemical physics.

Importance of physical chemistry

During the late 19th century, physical chemistry played an important role in Wilhelm Ostwald's and Jacobus Henricus van 't Hoff's work on chemical equilibrium. It also played an important role in Svante Arrhenius theory of ionization and redox-reactions. Many of the new materials created to produce better chips for the computer industry, or compounds for the aeroplane and rocket industry are a result of the closely related materials science. Lubricant, solvent, cleaning and plastic industries couldn't exist without physical chemistry and specifically macromolecular chemistry. A better understanding of biological systems comes from the combination of physics, (physical) chemistry and biology in fields such as biophysics, biochemistry, molecular genetics and molecular biology.

After 1900, chemists began to get valuable help from physics about the electrical nature of the atom. This knowledge led to improvements in X-rays diffraction and structural analyses and the assignment of atomic numbers to the elements, successively leading to a better systematic understanding of the elements, even to the point where new elements were predicted before they were actually created in laboratories. (1994) Compton's Encyclopedia C-Ch. Compton's Learning Company, 302. 

Important physical chemists

Willard Gibbs is considered one of the founders of physical chemistry because of his 1876 paper On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, wherein he developed such cornerstones as free energy, chemical potential, and phase rule.

See also


  • Physical Chemistry, Peter Atkins, 1978, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-7167-3539-3.
  • Physical Chemistry, R. Stephen Berry, Stuart A. Rice, John Ross, 2000 (2nd edition), Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510589-3.
  • Introduction to Modern Colloid Science, R.J. Hunter, 1993, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-855386-2.
  • Principles of Colloid and Surface Chemistry, P.C. Hiemenz, R. Rajagopalan, 1997, Marcel Dekker Inc., New York. ISBN 0-8247-9397-8.
  • Physical Chemistry, W.J. Moore, 1972 (5th edition), Longmans, London/Prentice Hall, NJ. ISBN 0-582-44234-6
  • Physical Chemistry of Macromolecules, Charles Tanford, 1961, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, ISBN 0-471-84447-0