Amateur chemistry

Amateur chemistry or home chemistry is the pursuit of chemistry as a private hobby.[1] Amateur chemistry is usually done with whatever chemicals are available at disposal at the privacy of one's home. It should not be confused with clandestine chemistry, which involves the illicit production of controlled drugs.[a] Notable amateur chemists include Oliver Sacks and Sir Edward Elgar.[2][3]



Amateur chemistry shares its early history with that of chemistry in general. Pioneers of modern chemistry such as Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier were gentleman scientists who pursued their research independently from their source of income.[4][5] Only with the coming of the industrial era, and the rise of universities as research institutions, did any significant distinction between amateurs and professionals emerge. Nevertheless, amateur progress lasted well into the 19th century. For example, in 1886, Charles Martin Hall co-invented the Hall-Héroult process for extracting aluminium from its oxide whilst working in a woodshed behind his family home.[6] The history of amateur chemistry ties in well with that of chemistry in general. The history of chemistry represents a time span from ancient history to the present. By 1000 BC, civilizations used technologies that would eventually form the basis to the various branches of chemistry. These processes include extracting metals from ores, making pottery and glazes, fermenting beer and wine, extracting chemicals from plants for medicine and perfume, rendering fat into soap, making glass, and making alloys like bronze.

Chemistry as a hobby

Throughout much of the 20th century, amateur chemistry was an unexceptional hobby, with high-quality chemistry sets readily available, and laboratory suppliers freely selling to hobbyists. For example, Linus Pauling had no difficulty in procuring potassium cyanide at the age of eleven.[2] However, due to increasing concerns about terrorism, drugs, and safety, suppliers became increasingly reluctant to sell to amateurs, and chemistry sets were steadily toned down.[7] This trend has gradually continued, leaving hobbyists in many parts of the world without access to most reagents.

Notable amateur chemists


Whilst the hobby is probably legal in most jurisdictions,[b] the relationship between amateur chemists and law enforcement agencies is often fraught. Hobbyists are often affected by laws intended to fight drugs and terrorism. Furthermore, many chemical supply houses refuse to sell to amateurs, with such policies sometimes being stated openly.[15][16]


In Canada, a wide range of basic laboratory reagents such as nitric acid and hydrogen peroxide are restricted as "explosives precursors".[17]


German amateur chemists have been raided by the police, despite not being in the possession of illegal chemicals.[18][19]

United States

In the United States, some regions have stringent regulations concerning the ownership of chemicals and equipment. For example, Texas requires the registration of even the most basic laboratory glassware.[20]

United Nuclear, an amateur science supplier based in New Mexico was raided at the behest of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission,[1] and subsequently fined $7,500 for "Selling Illegal Fireworks Components".[21]

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration maintains lists regarding the classification of illicit drugs, which contain chemicals that are used to manufacture the controlled substances/illicit drugs. The lists are designated within The Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 802, paragraphs 34 (list I) and 35 (list II).

See also


  • a. ^ The terms "amateur chemistry" and "clandestine chemistry" are not rigidly defined, and may depend upon context. For clarity, this article defines "amateur chemistry" to be the practice of chemistry as a hobby, and not as the means to an illegal end.
  • b. ^ The legal status of amateur chemistry per se is somewhat ambiguous. Whilst there appears to be no legislation explicitly banning the activity, there is also little evidence to confirm its legality.


  1. 1 2 3 Silberman, Steve (June 2006), Don't Try This at Home, Wired Magazine, retrieved 2008-07-18
  2. 1 2 3 Sacks, Oliver (2001), Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Vintage Books, ISBN 0-375-40448-1
  3. 1 2 Weintraub, Stanley, "Shaws's Musician: Edward Elgar" (PDF), Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies (Requires subscription), retrieved 2008-07-21
  4. Rosenfeld, Louis (1999), Four Centuries of Clinical Chemistry, Taylor and Francis, ISBN 90-5699-645-2
  5. University of Wisconsin - General Chemistry - The Law of Conservation of Mass, retrieved 2008-07-19
  6. Emsley, John (2001), Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, Oxford University Press, pp. 451–53, ISBN 0-19-850341-5
  7. Fuscaldo, Donna (2007-12-11), The Grinch Who Stole the Chemistry Set, Fox Business, retrieved 2008-07-19
  8. Goertzel (1995), Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-00672-8
  9. Theodore Gray's website, retrieved 2008-07-18
  10. Winners of the Ig Nobel Prize, retrieved 2008-07-18
  11. Theodore Gray's website: 2002 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry, retrieved 2008-07-18
  12. Popular Science: Gray Matter column, retrieved 2008-07-18
  13. Hickam, Homer (1998), Rocket Boys: A Memoir, Delacorte Press, ISBN 0-385-33320-X
  14. Sir Edward William Elgar; Amateur Chemist-Composer (PDF), retrieved 2008-08-10
  15. Timstar Laboratory Suppliers Ltd: Ordering information, retrieved 2008-07-18
  16. Stratlab Web Shop - Laboratory Supplies - Chemicals and reagents, retrieved 2008-08-10
  17. Natural Resources Canada: New Regulations Tighten Controls on Restricted Chemicals, Marketwire, 2008-05-19, retrieved 2008-08-08
  18. Winsemann, Bettina (2008-08-02), Von Chemikalien, Aquarianern, Sprengstoffen und Drogen (in German), Telepolis, retrieved 2008-08-08
  19. Winsemann, Bettina (2008-12-21), Terrorfahndung in Kinderzimmern] (in German), Telepolis, retrieved 2008-08-08
  20. Texas Administrative Code: Title 37, Public Safety And Corrections; Part 1, Texas Department Of Public Safety; Chapter 13, Controlled Substances; Subchapter E, Precursors And Apparatus, retrieved 2008-07-19
  21. "New Mexico Company Fined, Ordered To Stop Selling Illegal Fireworks Components" (PDF) (Press release). Consumer Product Safety Commission. 2007-07-20. Retrieved 2006-07-18.
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