Page created by Taaibah Hossain (Chemistry with Industrial Experience, University of Birmingham).
As part of my undergraduate degree I did a year in industry working as a ‘formulation chemist’ at a chemicals company called Innospec. It was a fantastic experience and really helped me to understand how my degree course was applicable in the real world. In this article I will explain what formulation chemistry is and suggest a couple of “formulations” that you can try to make at home.
Formulations are mixtures of chemical substances, designed to be used for a particular purpose. Examples of products which are formulations include pharmaceutical drugs, personal care products, paints, detergents and herbicides. A formulation is made by mixing together specific amounts of materials whilst following a particular method. The formulations that we use in our day to day lives are the product of months or years of research. Each formulation is tested rigorously to ensure that it is fit for purpose, transportation and storage.
The role of a formulation chemist is to establish the best ingredients and method to make a particular formulation. A formulation chemist will make a formulation several times to achieve this goal. Formulation chemists make observations while they are making a formulation and will record information about its stability over time and when stored at different temperatures.
Formulating and Baking
A formulation chemist may be likened to a baker. The baker might decide to bake a carrot cake. They bake the cake very carefully, weighing the ingredients to the gram and following the method precisely. Their cake may turn out perfectly or may be under the mark. A problem that the baker may encounter could be that their cake had a poor rise and was therefore dense. In order to overcome this our baker bakes the same cake or “formulation” again but this time they increase the amount of raising agent they use by a few grams. The resulting cake has a better rise.
That would be the end of the formulation process if not for the baker’s family, who now argue that the cake is not sweet enough! The baker then makes further changes to their cake in order to improve it. The baker adds an additional 50g of sugar to their cake. Fortunately, this attempt yields a cake that is both well risen and sweet enough to appease the baker’s family. Thus, the “carrot cake formulation” is complete and fit for purpose.
The approach that is used by the baker, where they make small changes to their cake formulation, one at a time, is the same approach that is adopted in industry when formulations are developed. However, there are some differences between formulating cakes at home and formulating products in industry. For example, in industry a formulation is likely to be made many more times than any bake that an amateur baker might make at home. Also, the level of precision in weighing, analysing the formulation and recording observations will be greater during industrial research.
My Year in Industry as a Formulation Chemist
As I mentioned earlier, my experience of formulation chemistry comes from my industrial placement. During my placement I formulated personal care products such as shampoos and bodywashes. Often, I would make the same formulation several times in order to perfect it. In fact, the last formulation that I developed, I made over 20 times. Although this may sound tedious to some, the formulation of personal care products can be incredibly enjoyable. I was lucky that I was given the chance to develop a range of products ranging from ‘simple’ clear shampoos to charcoal cleansing sticks and solid shampoo bars.
Careers in Formulation Chemistry
A career in formulation chemistry is well-suited to those who are creative and enjoy problem solving. To be a formulation chemist you also need to have a degree of patience as some products take years to develop. Developing formulations can be very rewarding if you manage to perfect a formulation and see it reach the market.
I hope that you now have a greater understanding of formulation chemistry and may consider a career in formulation chemistry yourself!
Have a Go at Formulating a Product
If you would like to try your hand at formulating, then you could try making one of the following formulations:
1) Vegan Cupcakes: ideal for the novice baker. I have made these many times and have changed the amount and type of sugar, the amount of oil, the flavouring e.g. from vanilla to almond extract or rose water.
2) Bath Bombs (Link to a new page)
After making your formulation once, analyse your product and how easy it was to make. If you feel that the product could be improved, then modify the formulation by changing the ingredients or the method, accordingly. For example, you could change the flavour of the cupcakes or the fragrance of the bath bomb. Keep making your formulation until you are satisfied that your formulation is fit for purpose – a perfect treat with your afternoon cuppa or a bit of fun in your next bath.
Carrot cake image by StockSnap from http://www.pixabay.com
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License