Bunsen burners, Meker burners and Tirrill burners are three closely related laboratory tools that derive from a design popularized in the 1850s by German chemist Robert Bunsen and first built for him by Peter Desaga, a scientific instrument maker at Bunsen's university. According to the Science History Institute, Bunsen's original purpose for the burner was to flame-test metals and salts, which requires a nonluminous flame so that the color emitted by the tested material can be clearly observed.
After Bunsen and Desaga, other scientists and engineers continued to refine the design, introducing variations on it, including the Meker burner and the Tirrill burner. Burners based on all these designs are still used for heating and flame sterilization in the lab today.
A typical Bunsen burner is composed of a few simple parts:
- A vertical tube or barrel
- A base that supports the barrel
- An inlet at the bottom of the barrel, through which flammable gas enters
- A collar near the base of the barrel that controls the flow of air into it covering or uncovering a vent
As gas flows into the tube through the inlet, it mixes with air and is ignited at the top of the barrel.
What are the different types of burners?
Burning Hot: Meker Burners
In 1905, a French chemist named M.G. Meker developed a modification of Bunsen’s design that is now known as the Meker burner. On a Meker burner, there is a grid at the top of the tube, which breaks the flame into many smaller flames. This produces a larger area of maximum temperature as well as an overall increase in temperature, according to an article in the Journal of Chemical Education.
Precise Control: Tirrill Burners
In 1887, an American chemist named Francis Preston Venable developed a modified laboratory burner that allowed for more precise control of its flame via a valve in the burner’s base. This valve regulates the flow of gas into the barrel. This design has subsequently become known as a Tirrill burner, most likely after an early manufacturer, according to the Journal of Chemical Education.
Know Your Fuel Type: LP vs. Methane
Some laboratory burners are designed to work with natural gas (methane), while others are designed to work with liquid petroleum (also known as LP, which can be propane, butane or a mixture of the two), according to manufacturer Eisco Industrial. It’s important to only use instruments designed for the gas source in your lab, whether that means LP Bunsen burners or natural gas (methane) Bunsen burners.
How Do You Adjust a Bunsen Burner?
There are two basic ways to adjust a Bunsen burner: the first is to increase or decrease the amount of gas flowing into the barrel, and the second is to increase or decrease the amount of air flowing into the barrel.
- When you change the amount of gas flowing into the barrel, you're changing the size of the flame, according to “Introduction to Chemical Principles: A Laboratory Approach.” On Tirrill burners and many Meker burners, a valve in the base controls the flow of gas into the barrel. For burners without this valve, the flow must be controlled at the fuel source.
- When you change the amount of air flowing into the barrel, you're changing the type of flame produced, according to "Introduction to Chemical Principles." Air flow is controlled by adjusting the collar near the bottom of the barrel.
When there is too little air in the mixture, the flame will be yellow and not very hot. According to Eisco Industrial, a burner with the air valve completely closed will produce a yellow, easy-to-see “safety flame” that is relatively cool and serves as reminder that the burner is on.