“The Bunsen Burner: Keeping the flame burning for the laboratory”

69px-Bunsen_burnerMuch like the Gram stain, a discovery that stands the test of time, usually has enduring qualities to it. The Bunsen Burner was invented in 1854. It was named after and commissioned by Robert Bunsen, a German chemist working at Heidelberg University, but was probably designed by his colleague Peter Desaga. The “Bunsen burner” was really just an improvement on other laboratory gas burners that were already in existence, including one invented by Michael Faraday. Although Robert Bunsen will always be associated with the Bunsen Burner, he was also an outstanding chemist and was responsible for the discovery of the elements caesium and rubidium, mainly through his pioneering work on spectro-chemical analysis.


The secret of the Bunsen Burner is it’s ability to mix the fuel (methane or similar) with oxygen, before the mixture is ignited. This is done by using an inlet valve at the bottom of the burner column which draws in air by the Venturi effect. The mixture is then ignited at the top of the column. The adjustable valve (collar) at the bottom dictates how much oxygen gets into the mixture. With a closed valve very little oxygen gets in and a smoky yellow “low temperature” flame is produced. With the valve fully open, a hot, almost colourless, roaring flame results.

I know that a lot of microbiology (bacteriology) laboratories have now got rid of the Bunsen Burner, in favour of the rather dull disposable plastic loops. I know there are risks with Bunsens (burns, fire etc..) but for me I still retain an affinity for the Bunsen, especially when it roars…


p.s. When I was 11, I received for Christmas a laboratory standard Bunsen Burner, a bottle of concentrated sulphuric acid and various other exotic chemicals. I enjoyed using these to carry out all sorts of dangerous experiments in the controlled environment of the bathroom cupboard!

Santa doesn’t make toys like he used to any more….

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