A buchner filtration, an erlenmeyer flask and a bunsen burner. Chemists remembered as lab equipment.

Chemists Remembered as Lab Equipment

I was going to try to be topical and do a post about odd things that have won the Nobel Prize. But then I read back through the list and was reminded that the Nobel Committee is in fact dreadfully serious. Needs more Andre Geim, apparently. That’s why we have the Ig Nobels. Then I came across the name Eduard Buchner and started thinking about the number of chemists remembered as lab equipment.

Also it turns out that’s not even the right Buchner. But still, chemistry has a bit of a name problem. Lots of people can name plenty of physicists. But chemists? Beyond their own very specific subfield, even chemists can mostly name the ones that have something named after them. (I could make a joke here about the Nobel committee often having issues but that’s not the sort of controversy we talk about here)

A buchner filtration, an erlenmeyer flask and a bunsen burner. Chemists remembered as lab equipment.

They said I could be anything so I became a flask

Büchner

I’m not sure we can even properly say that this one is primarily remembered as a piece of glassware. Because English speakers hate typing umlauts, the glassware he invented is usually referred to as a Buchner funnel and mistakenly associated with the above Nobel Laureate. And even then, very few people could probably tell you he worked on fermentation without yeast.

Buchner flask and funnel setup

You… might want a bigger flask for a funnel that size

Ernst Büchner, on the other hand, was a 19th century industrial chemist. He worked on petrochemicals, which is of course very important but not exactly the sort of work that excites the minds of modern audiences. But Büchner funnels with their accompanying flasks? Chemists use those all the time to collect crystals. Being rather partial to recrystallization as a purification technique (You can put it in the fridge and walk away! Way better than columns.), I used his equipment very regularly.

Erlenmeyer

One of my most common responsibilities as an introductory organic chemistry TA was explaining the difference between a Büchner flask and an Erlenmeyer flask. Over and over again.

So nevermind whether the Chemistry Nobel has gone to chemists. The real way to get chemists to remember you forever is to invent a piece of glassware. Erlenmeyer flasks are wonderful because if you knock them over, they don’t spill everything. This probably shouldn’t be my favourite selling point for lab equipment.

Woman wearing a surgical mask and holding an Erlenmeyer flask full of something pink

Also when you give someone and Erlenmeyer flask they automatically look sciencey. I don’t want to know why stock photo lady is wearing a surgical mask though.

Most of Erlenmeyer’s work was actually theoretical, which makes it even stranger that he’s remembered mostly for a flask. Or maybe that’s why he created a flask with so many handy features for people who tend to knock things over. He was the first to suggest carbon multiple bonds. He also proposed the structure of naphthalene. And was the one who came up with that rule your sophomore organic chemistry harped on about enols not being stable.

On a side note, the single most bizarre spam subject line I’ve ever seen was “See girls **** Erlenmeyer”. That seems like a really specific fetish.

Bunsen

Robert Bunsen has numerous claims to fame that should be enough for everyone to remember him. He worked extensively in developing emission spectroscopy. He discovered cesium and rubidium. He was a pioneer in photochemistry.

And he invented the Bunsen burner. It was a major advancement in chemistry technology at the time. Now it’s largely been replaced by hotplates. Though for some reason during my undergrad, we heated things on Bunsen burners in first year general chemistry and only first year general chemistry. Which strikes me as the class you would least want to trust with fire. But one thing Bunsen burners can do that hot plates can’t is flame dry glassware for inert chemistry.

Speaking of which…

Schlenk

Schlenk disovered organolithium reagents. They’re incredibly useful (though highly flammable) reagents for forming carbon-carbon bonds. However, unlike Grignard, he didn’t name them after himself. He does have an equilibrium in Grignard reagents named after him though.

What Schlenk is really known for though is all the equipment that he developed for not setting oneself on fire while using organolithium reagents. He invented both the Schlenk line and the Schlenk flask. The line has both vacuum and inert gas (nitrogen if your lab is poor, argon if you can afford to make your life easier). It’s wonderful for removing all the water and oxygen while using the above mentioned Bunsen burner to make sure everything is well and truly dry. And then the gas to continue the non oxygen.

Schlenk Line

Trust me, four taps automatically make your life a million times easier than three. Photo by Polimerek

A Schlenk flask is, appropriately enough, a flask with a tap that allows you to connect it easily to a Schlenk line.

So there you go. Apparently it doesn’t really matter who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The real way to get chemists to remember your name forever is to name a piece of lab equipment after yourself.

3 thoughts on “Chemists Remembered as Lab Equipment

  1. What a great list!! Shlenk flasks are also super useful in inert glove box chemistry as you can put the contents under vacuum and bring them in the glove box 🙂

    • Yeah, they’re pretty great for that too. We’d get the Schlenk flasks out for things that needed to be done not at room temperature. And the photochem.

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