Had a couple of minutes to kill. Did a web search for “what is the difference between inorganic and organic chemistry.” Skipped directly to search results page 3 and beyond to find the most horrible and entertaining examples. Such as this.

I think Organiic chemistry is chemistry most ly about living things and carbon and Inorganic chemistry is just dealing with nonliving things

Or how about this? By a “College Professor.”

Organic molecules are the chemicals of life, compounds composed of more than one type of element, that are found in, and produced by, living organisms.

As if Friedrich Wöhler hadn’t disproved vitalism nearly 200 years ago.

Allow me instead to try to illustrate the difference between inorganic and organic chemistry with a simple reaction scheme.

Reduction or oxidation

This reaction is certainly not new or particularity exciting. You will find variations of it in about every text book out there. Sodium borohydride was discovered in the early 1940s, but kept secret for over a decade. (As if its powers in the wrong hands would have changed the course of history…)

Anyway, in the reaction above — what do you see?

I see a reduction. That is because I’m an organic chemist. Let’s just pretend this reaction was new, and I wanted to publish it. I would then maybe entitle my manuscript “Sodium borohydride mediated reduction of acetophenone to its corresponding alcohol.”

But inorganic chemists. What do they see? They see an oxidation! Their publication would be something like “Acetophenone mediated oxidation of sodium borohydride to boric acid.”

Let’s get serious for a while. There is no clear boundry between inorganic and organic chemistry. For example, look at some of the most common organo-metal complexes used in OLEDs. They are often based on iridium or aluminum. Inorganic or organic? It depends on who you ask.

Also: Whenever there is a reduction, there is an oxidation — and the other way around, of course.


7 Responses to The difference between inorganic and organic chemistry

  1. DrMel says:

    I have to confess that the demarcation line is fuzzy but it is common now to attend a conference on “inorganic” chemistry that in fact is mostly about how molecules that do not contain carbon can be used to modify molecules that do contain carbon. I have learned more about the mechanisms of obscure organic reactions at recent inorganic symposia then I ever did as a student. In my early days as a Main Group chemist it was routine for me to be approached by some ingratiating organo-metallic chemist who would point out “I see your compound has a lot of lone pairs … have you ever considered using it as a ligand … can you “loan” me a couple of grams?”. Now, it is some organic chemist that thinks I have made a replacement for Lawesson’s Reagent. As if the preparation of new small molecules with novel bonding was not reason enough to prepare a new compound. If it wasn’t for the improvement in the yield or selectivity of organic reactions or new paths to pharamaceuticals most “inorganic” conferences would have no one to present.

  2. milkshake says:

    A funny sideline: borohydrides were kept classified because U(BH4)4 is a volatile solid, and it was briefly investigated as a replacement for UF6 in enrichment by gaseous diffusion. It was totally unfeasible but that did not prevent military from keeping the existence of borohydrides classified for another decade. See here:


    • drfreddy says:

      It must have sucked being in grad school during WWII. Awesome results, but let’s hold it with the publications for a decade, and see how things turn out.

      • milkshake says:

        they had internal publication process in Los Alamos – they had a library with a giant bank vault, with guards stationed in front. It was a hilarious joke – see the Los Alamos stories in “Surely Joking Mr Feynman”. They held secret conferences also.

        • Son of Gashira says:

          I bet the reviewers of the secret papers were also secret. Imagine that! Secret reviewers! Crazy world…

      • milkshake says:

        I think carborane existence was kept classified for few years because it resulted from military-sponsored research to rocket fuels, substituted pentaboranes and decaboranes (They were unfeasible for practical use in rockets: quite a few people in US and USSR got fatally poisoned, burned, or both, in the “Green Dragon”-related accidents)

  3. fluorogrol says:

    If I unfocus my eyes and stare at it for a couple of hours, an inorganic reaction begins to emerge.

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