The Erlenmeyer flask is probably the quintessential piece of lab equipment. If there’s a movie or television show involving science, then it’s a near certainty that someone, at some point is going to be holding one up and gazing at the contents.
It’s practically the default image for scientist at work. Basically, an Erlenmeyer Flask is a container that has a wide conical base that then tapers to a conical neck, and is flat on the bottom. They are also known as a conical or E Spot, and Erlenmeyer flasks are typically made of glass, although plastic ones are commonly used in microbiology and can be made of borosilicate glass so that they are more resistant to damage by heating.
Created by German chemist Emil Erlenmeyer back in 1861, the Erlenmeyer flask is a marvel of useful simplicity. The narrow conical neck means that you can shake or spin the contents with little risk of spillage. The neck is also handy for slowing down evaporation, and the rounded glass of the neck makes it very easy for the flask to be sealed with a cork or paraffin or even just cotton.
The wide flat bottom means that short of actually dropping the Erlenmeyer flask when you’re handling it, it’s virtually impossible to knock it over. This is a significant improvement over other beakers and graduated cylinders and is one of the prime reasons that the flasks are so common in chemistry labs all over the world.
They typically come with a ground glass spot or a bit of enamel on them so that they can be written on with a pencil or magic marker. They are usually marked on the side so that you can get an approximation of how much of whatever is in them, but they are not as accurate as the smaller and more delicate graduated cylinder.
Typically, most Erlenmeyer flasks are going to be either 250 or 500ml, but they do come in a variety of sizes with 50, 125, 250, 500, 1000 ml versions also readily available. You can also get them in smaller or larger sizes, but these eliminate some of the benefits of the flask’s design, and so are rarely used.
The most common use for the Erlenmeyer flask is probably titration, a chemistry process where two substances are mixed together to see if there is any reaction, which is done in order to identify an unknown substance. Erlenmeyer flasks are also pretty widely used to heat liquids. This is usually done by placing the flask in a metal clamp and placing it over the top of a Bunsen burner or other type of flame.
If you’re going to use one for this purpose, you need to remember that glass doesn’t look hot even when it’s easily warm enough to burn skin, so make sure to use caution, and possibly an oven mitt. Scientists aren’t the only ones to use Erlenmeyer flasks; their convenient shape, cheap price and easy sealing also makes them very popular with microbrewers and people who make homemade wine.