Analytical Chemist

Analytical chemists study and test the chemical composition and reactions of many different substances. These scientists work in many different industries and use complex equipment and procedures, such as chromatography, electrophoresis, mass spectrometry, and optical spectroscopy, to test samples and identify and quantify their components. They perform quantitative and qualitative chemical tests, analyses, and experiments for quality control. They also take an active role in the development of new products and processes.

At a Glance

Imagine you are standing in your bright white lab coat and safety glasses, carefully monitoring the output of the complex and highly sensitive instrument in front of you. You are an analytical chemist and today you are testing used oil for trace metals.

The oil was collected from several large diesel engines at a nearby industrial plant during their last routine oil change. These diesel engines are critical to the plant because they power its fire response system. Without them, the system would lose the pumps that send water to the fire hydrants.

If there was a fire at the plant and these engines failed, firefighters could not put the fire out. An uncontrolled fire on the plant site could cause huge explosions, noxious gas releases, and chemical spills.

As a precaution, the plant has hired you to test the used oil from its diesel engines to look for signs of potential failure. As an analytical chemist, you test the used oil for trace metals, which would be indicators of potential problems with the engines.

When the plant's mechanics change the oil in these engines, they bring samples of the old oil to you. After prepping the samples, you run them through an instrument called an ICPS, an Inductively Coupled Plasma Spectrophotometer. The ICPS will tell you if there are any metals present in the oil and, if there are, what metals they are and in what quantities. You can then compare these results to established limits and control values.

Once you have the results, you can look for indicators.

Silver is used to make the bearings in these engines, so if silver is present, it means the bearings are wearing and must be replaced.

Iron is also an indicator of metal wear, so if there are traces of iron in the oil, you know that another piece of the engine is wearing and needs replacement.

Your oil analysis will tell the mechanics which engine parts are going to break before they do.

Being able to anticipate failures and replace worn parts greatly reduces the risk of an engine breaking down in the middle of a fire or other emergency and possibly averts catastrophe.

Job Duties

Job duties can vary from one position to the next, but in general, analytical chemists are involved in the following activities:

  • Implement programmes for collecting and analyzing samples and data to identify and quantify environmental pollutants.
  • Employ methods such as chromatography, spectroscopy, or spectrophotometry to scrutinize organic or inorganic compounds and ascertain their chemical or physical characteristics, composition, structure, relationships, or reactions.
  • Perform routine equipment maintenance and daily quality control testing of analytical methods.
  • Calibrate laboratory equipment according to maintenance schedules.
  • Design sampling protocols.
  • Prepare standards, reagents, and solvents for experiments.
  • Prepare reports identifying samples, explaining testing methods, documenting findings, and outlining conclusions of analyses.
  • Design and execute experimental procedures, including qualitative and quantitative testing of complex samples.
  • Validate and troubleshoot analytical methods.
  • Plan, coordinate, and oversee laboratory analyses for compliance actions, emergency response, site studies, health and safety studies, investigations, and remediation.
  • Select methods and laboratory procedures and schedule, conduct and supervise analytical tests.
  • Supervise technical staff.

Work Environment

Analytical chemists work in a variety of locations, including:

 The office:

  • Analyzing data
  • Writing reports to summarize findings after data analysis
  • Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and experts in the field
  • Researching new technology and advancements in chemistry
  • Consulting with other chemistry professionals
  • Researching literature and preparing reports and scientific and white papers
  • Developing and implementing quality control procedures
  • Reviewing data from other scientists
  • Troubleshooting any issues that arise

The field:

  • Collecting samples of air, water, soil, or other materials
  • Collaborating with professionals from various disciplines, such as chemical engineering, biology, geology, and other related fields, in research and development initiatives

The laboratory:

  • Conducting experiments to analyze the composition, structure, and properties of various substances
  • Preparing test solutions and processing samples
  • Designing experimental and sampling protocols
  • Calibrating instruments

Where to Work

There are a number of places analytical chemists can find employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Biotechnology firms
  • Waste management firms
  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Agrochemical companies
  • Forensic labs
  • Firms in other industries, for example, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing


Search for jobs on the ECO Canada Job Board.

Education and Skills

Education

If you are considering a career as an analytical chemist, you should have a keen interest in:

  • Mathematics
  • Environmental Sciences
  • Chemical engineering
  • Biochemistry

In most cases, the minimum education requirement is a university undergraduate degree.

If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an analytical chemist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Biology
  • Physics

Analytical chemists do not necessarily need to be certified but most practitioners prefer to belong to national professional associations, such as the Canadian Society of Chemistry (CSC), or province-specific associations, such as the Association of the Chemical Profession of Alberta (ACPA).

Our Environmental Professional (EP) designation can also help you progress in your chosen environmental career.

Skills

Technical Skills

  • High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC)
  • Good manufacturing practices
  • Laboratory information management systems (LIMS)
  • Microsoft office
  • Test methods and analysis
  • Quality control
  • Investigating and research

Personal and Professional Skills

  • Problem-solving
  • Attention to detail
  • Time management
  • Project management
  • Monitoring, evaluation, and coordination
  • Verbal and written communication

Environmental employers seek professionals who combine technical knowledge with personal and professional skills. Watch our free webinar “Essential Not Optional: Skills Needed to Succeed in Canada’s Environmental Industry” or take our Essential Skills courses.

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Education and Skills

Amandeep Nagra

Throughout high school, Amandeep Nagra’s strongest marks were in chemistry. "I wanted to pursue a career in this science, but I wasn’t quite sure how.” After a conversation with his brother, a recent university graduate, he decided to go to college instead of university. "I was more interested in the work side, rather than spending a lot of time in school.” Two years after finishing high school, Aman had completed a diploma in chemical science from the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Today, Aman is a technical services representative with Cantest Ltd., a commercial analytical laboratory in Burnaby, BC. Before that, he was an analytical chemist with Cantest for three years. As an analytical chemist, Aman spent much of his time in the lab. There he tested effluent (waste) samples for oil and grease levels, anions, ammonia, and cyanide, to name a few. These samples came from a variety of businesses, including chicken slaughterhouses, car washes, and sawmills.

Aman ensured that these levels were below the allowed limits according to the environmental regulations of the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Aman was also responsible for other duties in the lab, including titrating chemicals, preparing solutions, and operating different instruments. "There are so many different analyses you can do in the lab—there was nothing dull about that job.”

Another positive aspect of Aman’s job was that he regularly got to use his problem-solving skills. "We were always trying to design different ways to improve our testing and sampling methods. By doing so, we were making our job easier and more efficient.” One of Aman’s clients’ biggest misconceptions about his work was that sample testing could be completed in an hour. But effluent testing involves a number of stages and steps that can take several hours. Despite this, Aman was pleased to provide the service not only for his clients but also for the sake of the environment. "Just by notifying our clients that their commercial effluent is a problem, we are changing the quantity of pollution being dumped into our environment.”

Your Impact

Analytical chemists play a vital role in environmental chemistry and green chemistry by developing and applying analytical techniques to identify and quantify chemicals in environmental samples and monitor their outcomes and behaviour in the environment. They contribute to green chemistry by designing and applying analytical methods that minimize the use of hazardous chemicals and solvents and by developing and testing new green methods to prevent the generation of pollution.

Analytical chemists play a pivotal role in the detection and quantification of emerging contaminants such as microplastics, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products that have ecotoxicological effects on human health. Analytical chemists also contribute to environmental sustainability by applying analytical methods that use alternative solvents and reducing the number of hazardous wastes.

As an analytical chemist, you perform controlled experiments to understand the exact chemical components of a substance. Using advanced software to collect data, you analyze samples and substances and then write up technical reports detailing your findings.

Your work spans various industries. You may be providing measurements to assure the safety and quality of food and pharmaceuticals or assuring compliance with environmental regulations. Analytical chemists often work with research teams and collaborate with peers in their field to achieve their goals.

Occupational Classification

Analytical chemists are classified in the following occupational grouping:

NOC Code: 21101 - Chemists

What is an NOC Code?

The National Occupation Classification (NOC) provides a standardized language for describing the work performed by Canadians in the labour market. It gives statisticians, labour market analysts, career counsellors, employers, and individual job seekers a consistent way to collect data and describe and understand the nature of work within different occupations.

The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.

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