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What is Wet Chemistry?

By Brad Cole
Updated May 21, 2024
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Wet chemistry is a term that represents a number of scientific techniques that involve direct experimentation with liquids. Because it is a broad industry term, the exact definition can vary from business to business. A general rule that can be applied is that if it involves a scientist working with liquids by hand and physically observing the results of the experiment, it is wet chemistry. The use of robotics in the laboratory, however, has even challenged this definition to some extent.

This type of chemistry includes basic experimentation techniques like measuring, mixing, and weighing chemicals, as well as testing concentration, conductivity, density, pH, specific gravity, temperature, viscosity, and other aspects of liquids. Analytical techniques in wet chemistry are usually qualitative in nature, meaning that they attempt to determine the presence of a specific chemical rather than the exact amount. Some quantitative techniques are used, however, and include gravimetrics (weighing) and volumetric analysis (measuring).

Bench chemistry is sometimes used as a synonym for wet chemistry. The terms differ in two primary ways: first, bench chemistry can involve dry chemicals, while wet chemistry always involves at least one substance in the liquid phase; second, wet chemistry sometimes involves high tech equipment, while bench chemistry only includes techniques that use simple devices in keeping with the classical chemistry spirit. Both types of chemistry, however, do share many of the same techniques and equipment.

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander had a wet chemistry lab aboard when it landed on the red planet in 2008. As one of its experiments, Phoenix scooped up small amounts of soil, then dissolved the samples in water. The soil solutions then had various aspects tested, including conductivity, pH, and redox potential. The instruments also tested for the presence of bromide anions, carbon, chloride anions, magnesium cations, oxygen, sodium cations, and sulfate anions.

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Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Dec 05, 2012

@KoiwiGal - Well, in some cases we are at that point. There are definitely times when a scientist has an easier job and there is a machine that will analyze the samples for them.

That was one of the points of the article. When do you still call it wet chemistry? The machine might use water in the analysis, like the Mars lander did, or it might use other liquids, or it might be analyzing liquids. Shouldn't it still be called wet chemistry, even if the scientist doesn't use any of these liquids herself?

I mean, it's not really a big deal, since the term "wet chemistry" isn't really all that important. But I do find it interesting at what point we let go of control over experiments and allow machines to do most or all of the work.

By KoiwiGal — On Dec 04, 2012

Wet chemistry is what people think of when they think of scientists, I suppose. The popular image of people in white coats fiddling around with beakers and bubbling colored liquids that run through clear tubes.

I always thought that kind of thing would be considered kind of quaint in this day and age, but I guess we aren't quite at the point where analytical chemistry consists of putting something into a machine and waiting for the machine to analyze it.

By lluviaporos — On Dec 03, 2012

@YogaJ - I didn't think of assays as being a part of wet science, but I guess it would be one of the main things they do. I remember doing some in high school biology and thinking that it seemed closer to chemistry than to biology.

But then, I guess the differences between the two sciences aren't all that great. Chemical analysis can tell you quite a lot biologically speaking.

By YogaJ — On May 24, 2011

I work in wet biology and I think it is interesting that wet chemistry analysis is more qualitative. In wet biology we often run assays that vary concentrations.

Our lab instruments just measure the results and report back differences between conditions. But I understand why qualitative chemical discovery and chemical testing is more relevant than knowing exact amounts, at least at first.

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