Chemistry | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Chemistry, the science concerned primarily with the structure and properties of matter and with the transformation of one form of matter into another. Now one of the most theoretically and methodologically sophisticated sciences, chemistry had its beginnings in medieval alchemy.
John Polanyi, scientist
John Polanyi receiving his share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, 10 December 1986 (photo by Rolf Hamilton, Pressens Bild).


Chemistry, the science concerned primarily with the structure and properties of matter and with the transformation of one form of matter into another. Now one of the most theoretically and methodologically sophisticated sciences, chemistry had its beginnings in medieval alchemy. Because chemistry studies matter at a basic level, it is concerned with the physical sciences (eg, PHYSICS), the life sciences (eg, BIOCHEMISTRY, MEDICINE) and the earth sciences (eg, GEOLOGY, geochemistry). Not only do chemical studies aim to understand natural processes, they also underpin production of many goods essential to daily living, ranging from food and drugs, through substances used in the visual arts, to heat and electricity. Chemical engineers specialize in the transfer of knowledge from the academic sphere to that of industry.

History and Training in Canada

Chemistry was first taught in Canada (1720) at the SÉMINAIRE DE QUÉBEC (in 1852, a sponsor of Université Laval). The first Canadian author of a chemistry textbook was J.B. Meilleur, whose Cours abrégé de leçons de chymie was printed in Montréal in 1833. The earliest academic recognition of the chemistry discipline was in 1825, when chemistry was taught at King's University in Windsor, Ont. By 1900 all universities in eastern Canada had chemistry departments, offered honours science degrees and had diversified into chemical physics and organic (ie, carbon-containing compounds) and inorganic chemistry. However, the rate of graduation of chemists was not high.

By the end of WWI, a research focus had appeared and universities in the 4 Western provinces had chemistry departments. Educational facilities expanded greatly after WWII, a trend that continued into the early 1970s. In later years, honours chemistry courses became more flexible, more interdisciplinary options were introduced and instrumental techniques played a much larger role in laboratory instruction. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, expansions of chemistry departments had stabilized as a result of budget restrictions, as had the number of chemists entering graduate studies. Some schools and faculties combined facilities and personnel with neighbouring institutions to form chemical research institutes.

Students are introduced to chemistry usually at the high school level. To become a practising chemist, a university education is required. University course work involves classroom instruction and laboratory experience. After 4 years, the bachelor degree is awarded. Graduates may pursue further study or find employment, eg, in product and process control, analysis, environmental planning and monitoring, technical sales, market research, scientific writing and management. Those with advanced degrees may undertake research and teaching in postsecondary educational institutions or research institutes, or be employed by the chemical or related industries. The allied subjects of biochemistry and CHEMICAL ENGINEERING are taught in universities; chemical technology in community colleges.

The principles of chemistry are applied in most industries at one time or another because of the need for chemical analysis of raw materials and finished products. Major employers include chemical, pulp and paper, metallurgical, food and beverages, rubber, plastics, pharmaceuticals, petroleum, protective coatings, textiles, explosives and nuclear energy industries. During WWI the former Shawinigan Chemicals Ltd initiated industrial chemical research in Canada. The company's chemists developed a commercial process to make acetone required for explosives manufacturing. Today, most progressive companies carry out SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT. Federal, provincial and a few municipal governments employ chemists in their control laboratories and research institutes.

The federal government's NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF CANADA (NRC) was established in 1916. Laboratory divisions were set up in 1928. One of NRC's scientists, Gerhard HERZBERG, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1971 for work in SPECTROSCOPY. A co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1986 was John C. POLANYI, Dept of Chemistry, U of T, for his work on infrared chemiluminescence. The 7 provincial research councils conduct major programs in chemical research, the pioneer being the ALBERTA RESEARCH COUNCIL (est 1921). In Canada the universities are the major locations for fundamental chemical research.

The earliest noteworthy work was done by physicist Ernest RUTHERFORD and chemist Frederick Soddy at McGill University at the turn of the century. They propounded the general theory of atomic disintegration, which was to earn Rutherford a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908.

Chemistry in Use

The principles of chemistry are at work everyday all around us. In fact, our bodies are miniature chemical factories, producing a myriad of chemicals ranging from digestive acids to such esoteric organic chemicals as norepinephrine in the brain. We use the same principles to extract chemicals and chemical products from their natural environments (ie, the earth we walk on and the air we breathe) and transform them to enhance our daily lives. We mine or quarry the earth for inorganic chemicals (eg, salt, potash) and inorganic MINERALS (eg, limestone, gypsum) and nonferrous metallic ores. The earth is also the source of organic (eg, carbon-containing) chemicals such as petroleum and natural gas. Other inorganics are extracted from the air, eg, nitrogen, oxygen, argon and neon. Chemicals are produced by chemical and chemical products industries and as byproducts of smelting and petroleum refining.

Societies and Journals

Chemical societies first appeared in Canada in 1902 with the McGill Chemical Society, Montréal, and the Canadian section of the Society of Chemical Industry (UK), Toronto. Over 100 people attended the first national conference in Ottawa in 1918, which led to formation of the first national society, The Canadian Institute of Chemistry (1921). The institute amalgamated with other groups in 1945 to form a new national scientific society, The Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC). By 1993 the CIC embraced 4500 chemists, 1550 chemical engineers, and 500 chemical technologists. The CIC is an umbrella organization for constituent societies: the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering (est 1966), the Canadian Society for Chemical Technology (est 1973), and the Canadian Society for Chemistry (est 1985).

Three separate societies in Ontario, Québec and Alberta represent the nonscientific interests of chemists in provincial matters. Canadian chemists are also well served professionally by a number of journals. The Canadian Journal of Research was founded by the NRC in 1929 to publish original work in all sciences. Later, it was succeeded by several journals serving different disciplines, eg, the Canadian Journal of Chemistry, Canadian Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology and The Canadian Journal of Technology. The latter was transferred to the CIC (and subsequently to the SCLE) in 1956 and renamed the Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering. The CIC publishes a journal for general chemical news, Chemistry in Canada, which was founded in 1949 and renamed Canadian Chemical News in 1984. See also CHEMISTRY SUBDISCIPLINES.

Chemistry and Other Disciplines

Chemistry and other disciplines of science and engineering are closely linked. In the 1960s Merck Frosst Ltd scientists in Montréal began research on new drugs to control high blood pressure. A team of chemists, drawing on studies of their colleagues in biology and pharmacology, began synthesizing new organic chemicals to seek candidates and, by the late 1960s, developed a new chemical entity, called timolol maleate, which appeared to be a most promising new drug.

Chemical engineering studies were carried out to develop a commercial production process and the drug was evaluated through pharmacy research and development. Timolol maleate passed the federal drug regulatory agency evaluation process in the late 1970s and enjoys a reputation for providing significantly effective therapy in several areas of medicine. Development and production required cooperation among chemists, biologists, toxicologists, pharmacologists, chemical engineers, physicians and pharmacists.

Inorganic Chemicals

The general public is largely unaware of the importance of inorganic chemicals to Canada's industrial health. We are all familiar with the use of common salt in food. Few know, however, that salt is the starting material for producing chlorine, caustic soda and sodium chlorate. Chemicals are vital to the production of wood pulp, plastics, pharmaceuticals, disinfectants, pesticides, bleaches, ceramics, cosmetics, glass, rayon, detergents and aluminum. About 130 years ago, Canada was the world's largest exporter of potassium compounds, leached from wood ashes and used in soap-making. Today, Canada is again a large exporter of potassium compounds in the form of potash (used in fertilizer) from large deposits in Saskatchewan. Limestone is another important chemical raw material. When heated in kilns, it forms lime, used as a flux to smelt iron ore and nonferrous ores, and to make wood pulp cooking liquor.

Until the advent of the petrochemical industry in Canada during WWII, inorganic limestone had been the basis of Canada's organic chemical industry, centred in Shawinigan, Qué. Limestone and coke from coal were allowed to react to produce calcium carbide, then to produce acetylene, the starting point for a variety of organic chemicals, synthetic resins and plastics. Acetylene is also used in welding. Cyanamide was the precursor of melamine-formaldehyde resins, used in the plastics industry to make tablewares. The cyanamide-based process was discontinued in the 1950s. When heated, gypsum rock loses its water and can be used to make plaster wallboard or, in powdered form, to make moulds for medical or artistic purposes. Gypsum also slows the hardening time of portland cement, which itself is made by heating limestone with clay in large rotary kilns. Ammonia, another useful chemical, is produced by combining nitrogen with hydrogen. Ammonia and its derivatives are used as fertilizers and also to make drugs, cosmetics, detergents, dyes and pesticides.

The metallurgical industries are also major sources of various inorganic chemicals produced as byproducts during smelting operations. For example, since the 1920s, sulphur and sulphuric acid have been recovered from waste fumes resulting from the smelting of ores in Canada. The recovered sulphur and sulphuric acid are then used in a vast number of chemical products and processes ranging from fertilizers and detergents to refining of nonferrous metals and petroleum. Large volumes of nitrogen and oxygen gases are used in welding, food freezing and in medicine. Speciality gases (eg, argon, neon) are used in illuminated signs and for welding where inert atmospheres are required. Today the major source of sulphur is Alberta's sour natural gas. Recovery of sulphur from smelter fumes and sour natural gas reduces the ACID RAIN problem in Canada.

Organic Chemicals

Organic chemicals are created from crude oil and natural gas and, in smaller volume, from animal fats and vegetable oils. They are important ingredients in many consumer products. Canada's crude oil deposits led to the start of the petrochemical industry, the products of which include alcohols, antifreeze, plastic resins, solvents, synthetic rubber, synthetic textile fibres and carbon black. Natural gas is used to produce chemicals such as methyl alcohol and elemental sulphur. Before the advent of petrochemicals, Canada's IRON AND STEEL INDUSTRY produced benzene and toluene and other "coal chemicals as byproducts." COAL GASIFICATION and liquefaction may one day, when petroleum supplies are not as plentiful, be sources of organic chemicals.

Speciality and Fine Chemicals

Speciality and fine chemicals contrast with "heavy chemicals" sold in tonnage quantities and used in various industrial processes. Speciality chemicals include such items as aerosols, detergents and water treatment chemicals; flame retardants; food colorants and ingredients; pest control agents; sanitary chemicals; waxes and polishes. Fine chemicals, including medicinals and pharmaceuticals, are specialized products that were first manufactured in local drugstores as early as the late 19th century. For example, only 4 months after the first use of chloroform in obstetrics in 1847, the chemical was made by an enterprising druggist-chemist in Pictou, NS.

During WWI, manufacture of fine chemicals began to assume a substantial volume and Canadian manufacture of acetylsalicylic acid (ie, Aspirin) was begun. The manufacture of medicinal chemicals has since grown to include a range of products such as vitamins, hormones, antibiotics, etc. Other fine chemicals made in Canada include synthetic vanillin for flavours; citric acid for food and soft drinks; silver salts and iodines for the photographic industry; stearic acid and metal stearates for paints, lubricants, waterproofers and plastics; disinfectants for soapmakers and householders; silver chemicals for electroplating; cobalt salts to speed drying time of paints; and potassium iodide to add to table salt to prevent goitre. It is interesting to note that vanillin in Canada is produced as a byproduct of the pulp and paper industry and that another byproduct, lignin, is used as an ingredient in drilling muds for oil exploration.

In contrast with chemical products industries that produce chemicals, chemical process industries use chemicals in making their products. Major examples of these "chemical-user" industries include pulp and paper (using sulphur, acids, alkalis, bleaches, starches, sizes, dyes and pigments); rubber tires and rubber goods (using synthetic rubber, carbon black, fillers, antioxidants, lubricants, antiozonants, detergents); plastics processing (using synthetic resins, carbon black, fillers and colours); and textiles (using synthetic fibres, soaps, detergents, dyes). Other areas such as agriculture and food use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and other crop protection products; and sulphur dioxide to produce starch.

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