Differences of Lab Glassware

Written by john brennan
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Differences of Lab Glassware
Different kinds of lab glassware are appropriate for different applications. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

If you're working in a lab or taking a lab class, you would encounter many different kinds of glassware, each of which has features that make it especially well-suited to certain applications. Knowing the differences between the kinds of glassware available to you will help you design and carry out experiments more efficiently.

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Types of Glassware

Erlenmeyer flasks have a narrow neck over a conical base, while beakers are basically large open-mouthed glass jars with a lip and spout for pouring. Graduated cylinders are tall cylinders with a spout to pour liquids; they have hash marks on the side to measure the volume of their contents. Volumetric flasks have a flat-bottomed bulb and a long, narrow neck with a hash mark along the side to indicate the point at which the volumetric flask is full. Burettes are long, tall cylinders--generally much narrower and taller than graduated cylinders--with hash marks to measure volume and a stopcock at the bottom; the stopcock can be turned to allow the contents to drip out. Pipettes are long narrow glass tubes with a bulb in the centre, a hash mark to indicate when they are full, and a narrow tip. Sucking air from the pipette using a rubber bulb (like a turkey baster) draws liquid up through the tip into the pipette, and a precisely measured volume can then be transferred to another container.

Volumetric Glassware

Graduated cylinders, beakers, volumetric pipettes, burettes and volumetric flasks are five kinds of glassware often used to measure out specific volumes. Volumetric pipettes, flasks and burettes are the most accurate; these are typically calibrated to a high level of accuracy. The accuracy is usually measured in terms of the tolerance, which is the uncertainty in a measurement made with the glassware. Class A volumetric glassware has a lower tolerance than Class B; for class A, the tolerance can be as low as 0.08ml for a 100ml flask or pipette. Generally, measurements with class A volumetric glassware can be considered reliable to two places after the decimal point.

Graduated Cylinders and Beakers

Graduated cylinders, beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks are less accurate than volumetric glassware. Graduated cylinders can generally be considered reliable to within 1 per cent. Beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks should not be used to measure volume unless a very crude estimate is desired because their accuracy for volume measurements is so poor. They can hold a much larger volume than any of the other types of glassware, however, which makes them useful for mixing solutions.


In general, beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks should be used to mix and transport chemicals during an experiment or to store waste. Volumes can be measured with graduated cylinders if only limited accuracy is necessary; for greater accuracy, use a pipette or a burette. Burettes are best for titration. If you need to prepare a solution of known concentration, always use a pipette and a volumetric flask--these items both have very low tolerance, so you can be more confident that the concentration of your solution is close to your calculated value. When recording data, remember to record uncertainties and to use the appropriate number of significant figures given the kind of glassware you used to take each measurement.

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