Anyone and everyone who has ever been to a chemistry lab has handled one of these. Its uses are diverse. Whether you want to conduct a borax bead test, perform the flame test or just heat something to a red hot state, the Bunsen burner is your steady companion. It is the device so ubiquitous in a chemistry lab that people just don’t talk about it. It’s a trusty friend, whose absence is more suffered than its presence felt. The quickest method to get a glimpse of the most horrific misery that the human race can suffer is to perform a borax bead test in candle flame.
The burner has the wonderful ability to produce a flame which contains oxidizing and reducing parts simultaneously. The amount of air, and thus the height of the flame, can be conditioned at will. It is extremely portable and easy to clean. It is, in one word, indispensable.
The man pioneering this device was Robert Bunsen (1811-1899), and thus the name. Using hydrated ferrous oxide to treat arsenic poisoning is one of Bunsen’s lesser mentioned, but equally ingenious, contributions and this remains the standard treatment. Ironically, he almost died from arsenic poisoning. He also perfected electrolysis to standards not achieved till then. Replacing platinum electrodes with graphite ones, he significantly reduced the cost of an electrolysis process, all the while improving on the purity of the extracted metal.
He was a great teacher and a good debater. However, he often refused debates on technical topics or on topics not very well researched in his day. A thorough gentleman, he had a curious principle of never patenting anything. He remained devoted to his students throughout his teaching career and also never married.
On March 31st, Google came out with the following doodle to celebrate the 200th birthday of Robert Bunsen.
I remember the words of a chemistry teacher I had in the seventh grade. When I asked her why she thought the apparatus diagram I had drawn in the chemistry exam paper was wrong, she blatantly told me Your diagram misses the Bunsen. So you get a ZERO!’.