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Robert Bunsen: More Than The Inventor of Bunsen Burner

March 31, 2011

If you had googled today, you must have already seen the above Google doodle. This was Google’s way of celebrating 200th birth anniversary of Robert Bunsen who is known as the inventor of ubiquitous Bunsen burner. Anyone who has been to high school has used his namesake invention. It was not like burners didn’t exist before he invented his own version, but for his studies and experiments, he needed a hot, clean and colorless flame which other burners couldn’t provide. So he designed his own. The reason he wanted a colorless flame was because he wanted to study how different elements emit different colors of light when heated in a flame, in short he wanted to perform atomic emission spectroscopy, one of the first systematic spectroscopic studies. He along with Gustav Kirchhoff invented the first spectrograph in which they used prism to split the light emitted from the flame into different wavelengths and thus were able to identify the element present in the flame. He was able to detect Sodium, Lithium and Potassium. He also discovered new elements– Caesium  in 1860 and Rubidium in 1861. For studying cesium, he carefully and laboriously distilled 40 tons of mineral water to get 17 grams of cesium! He named these elements based on the color of light they emitted– Caesium after caesius in Latin which means “light blue” and Rubidium after rubidus which means “red.” Caesium today is used in atomic clocks while Rubidium gives the purple color in your fireworks.

Besides pioneering contributions to spectroscopy, he also developed gas- analytical techniques to analyze gases coming out of furnaces, volcanoes etc. He also invented jet pumps, ice and vapor calorimeters and Bunsen battery (predecessor to dry cells we use). He also found antidote to Arsenic poisoning which is still used till day– Iron oxide hydrate. Later in his life he focused mainly to study the problems in the field of geology and mineralogy. Thanks to Google Doodle for making us think about contributions Robert Bunsen made to the field of science and our daily lives in general.

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