According to the American Gas Association, 177M+ Americans use natural gas to heat their homes, cook their food, heat their water, or dry their clothes. Indirectly, millions more consume electricity generated in natural gas plants, dine at restaurants equipped with natural gas stoves, eat produce grown at natural gas-powered farms, or enjoy the benefits of natural gas in a myriad of other ways. And guess what? It all stems from the bunsen burner!
Natural gas is an indispensable part of our energy landscape, and the role it plays in our world grows every year.
But none of this would have been possible without the ingenuity of a German chemist named Robert Bunsen. His invention was the forerunner to today’s modern gas-burning appliances – a discovery so vital that we celebrate it each year on March 31st with National Bunsen Burner Day.
Succeeding Where Others Had Failed
While Robert Bunsen’s working models were first completed in 1854, the official date for the invention of the Bunsen burner is 1855, when he built 50 units for students to use in the chemistry lab at the University of Heidelberg where he had taken a professorship three years before.
Scientists had previously been working on a gas-burning appliance for decades with limited success, as flames were uncontrolled and unwieldy. Bunsen solved the riddle by designing a device that mixed air with natural gas in the correct proportions, using Isaac Newton’s principle of light refraction to produce four different flames of varying color and intensity.
Feeling as though his breakthrough belonged to science and educators the world over, he refused to patent his invention, which led to further enhancements over the years, including the development of temperature-regulating thermostatic devices. Once flame temperature could be adjusted and monitored, the true heating potential of natural gas was unlocked.
Quick Adoption of the Bunsen Burner Led to Rapid Natural Gas Growth
At the time when Bunsen burners first became a staple in the Heidelberg chemistry lab, coal was by far and away from the most prevalent heating and cooking fuel in America. Yet, within just 50 short years, gas stoves outnumbered coal two to one.
And over the next century, the trend to shift toward gas has held steady. Even today, natural gas usage continues to displace coal and other fossil fuels.
But what hasn’t changed, after more than 165 years, is the basic design of the Bunsen burner. From high school labs to professional facilities, the modern Bunsen burner still heats beakers and test tubes the same way it did in the 1800s.
Say Hello to Your Pilot Light
Every time you see a blue flame, from the sparking of a stovetop burner to the lighting of the pilot light on your furnace, remember that you’re benefiting from the hard work, creativity, and generosity of Robert Bunsen, who saw the ultimate potential for natural gas in our world far ahead of his time.