Most chemists have some lab kit that they use all the time or that they feel gives the best results. For example, when I was completing my studies, the most vital bit of kit for me was the glove box, because I worked with a lot of air-sensitive compounds.

However, there is one bit of kit that sticks out in my mind even more than the glove box, because when I was introduced to chemistry at school, it was one of the first bits of kit I got to use. I am of course talking about the Bunsen burner. For me it symbolised chemistry throughout my education and therefore its creator – Robert Bunsen – is my chemistry hero.

In 1852 Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen took a job at the University of Heidelberg, in Germany. As part of the deal, the authorities agreed to build him a lab and as Heidelberg had just started installing coal-gas street lighting, Bunsen’s new lab was to have a gas supply. Bunsen, however, wanted to use the gas for heating as well as illumination. So while the lab was still under construction, in 1854, he teamed up with Peter Desaga, the university’s mechanic, to develop a new burner.

He wanted to maximise temperature and minimise luminosity using the new burner and suggested certain design principles to Desaga, who developed a prototype. The Bunsen-Desaga design succeeded in generating a hot, sootless, non-luminous flame by mixing the gas with air in a controlled fashion before combustion. Desaga created slits for air at the bottom of the cylindrical burner, with the flame igniting at the top. By early 1855, 50 burners were made for Bunsen’s students and two years later Bunsen published a description. Today, the Bunsen burner is in use all around the world.

The device in use today safely burns a continuous stream of a flammable gas such as natural gas (methane) or a liquefied petroleum gas such as propane, butane or a mixture of both.

When choosing Bunsen (30 March 1811 – 16 August 1899) as my chemistry hero, it was because of the Bunsen burner connection. But when I started to do a bit of research on the German chemist, I realised what a large contribution he actually made to chemistry as a whole.

In 1833, Bunsen became a lecturer at the University of Göttingen and began solubility studies of metal salts of arsenous acid. His discovery of the use of iron oxide hydrate as a precipitating agent is the best-known antidote for arsenic poisoning, even today – a discovery that probably saved his life as he too nearly died from arsenic poisoning!

Robert Bunsen

His work on cacodyl derivatives – which are extremely toxic and undergo spontaneous combustion in dry air – at the University of Marburg from 1839, cost him the sight in one eye after an explosion, but this did not deter him from his research. In 1841 he created the Bunsen cell battery that used a carbon electrode instead of the very expensive platinum and in 1852 he used electrolysis to produce pure metals such as chromium, magnesium, aluminium, manganese, sodium, barium, calcium and lithium.

Along with the Bunsen burner, Bunsen is perhaps best known for studying the atomic emission spectra of heated elements. In the course of his work, Bunsen detected a previously unknown new blue spectral emission lines in a sample of mineral water. After careful distillation of 40 tonnes of the same type of mineral water, he isolated 17g of the new element, which he called caesium – after the Latin name for deep blue. The following year he discovered rubidium by a similar method.

Bunsen was one of the most universally admired scientists of his time. He discovered new elements and even put aside his own safety to advance his understanding of chemistry. But the impact he made on my life was the Bunsen burner – for me the symbol of secondary school chemistry education!

Mike Brown

Who are your chemical heroes? Join in the debate and see everyone else’s answers here

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