Heating Devices

Most labs use at least one type of heating device, such as ovens, hot plates, heating mantles and tapes, oil baths, salt baths, sand baths, air baths, hot-tube furnaces, hot-air guns and microwave ovens. Steam-heated devices are generally preferred whenever temperatures of 100o C or less are required because they do not present shock or spark risks and can be left unattended with assurance that their temperature will never exceed 100o C. Ensure the supply of water for steam generation is sufficient prior to leaving the reaction for any extended period of time.

General Precautions

When working with heating devices, consider the following: 

  • The actual heating element in any laboratory heating device should be enclosed in such a fashion as to prevent a laboratory worker or any metallic conductor from accidentally touching the wire carrying the electric current. 
  • If a heating device becomes so worn or damaged that its heating element is exposed, repair the device before it is used again or discard of the device. 
  • Use a variable autotransformer on a laboratory heating device to control the input voltage by supplying some fraction of the total line voltage, typically 110 V.
  • Locate the external cases of all variable autotransformers where water and other chemicals cannot be spilled onto them and where they will not be exposed to flammable liquids or vapors. 

Fail-safe devices can prevent fires or explosions that may arise if the temperature of a reaction increases significantly because of a change in line voltage, the accidental loss of reaction solvent or loss of cooling. Some devices will turn off the electric power if the temperature of the heating device exceeds some preset limit or if the flow of cooling water through a condenser is stopped owing to the loss of water pressure or loosening of the water supply hose to a condenser.

Ovens

Electrically heated ovens are commonly used in the laboratory to remove water or other solvents from chemical samples and to dry laboratory glassware. Never use laboratory ovens for human food preparation.

  • Laboratory ovens are constructed such that their heating elements and their temperature controls are physically separated from their interior atmospheres.
  • Laboratory ovens rarely have a provision for preventing the discharge of the substances volatilized in them. Connecting the oven vent directly to an exhaust system can reduce the possibility of substances escaping into the lab or an explosive concentration developing within the oven. 
  • Do not use ovens to dry any chemical sample that might pose a hazard because of acute or chronic toxicity unless special precautions have been taken to ensure continuous venting of the atmosphere inside the oven. 
  • To avoid explosion, rinse glassware with distilled water after rinsing with organic solvents before being dried in an oven.
  • Do not dry glassware contianing organic compounds in an unvented oven.
  • Bimetallic strip thermometers are preferred for monitoring oven temperatures. Do not mount mercury thermometers through holes in the top of ovens so that the bulb hangs into the oven. If a mercury thermometer is broken in an oven of any type, turn off and close the oven immediately.  Keep it closed until cool. Remove all mercury from the cold oven with the use of appropriate cleaning equipment and procedures in order to avoid mercury exposure.

Hot Plates

Laboratory hot plates are normally used for heating solutions to 100o C or above when inherently safer steam baths cannot be used. Ensure any newly purchased hot plates are designed in a way that avoids electrical sparks. Older hot plates pose an electrical spark hazard arising from either the on-off switch located on the hot plate, the bimetallic thermostat used to regulate the temperature or both.

In addition to the spark hazard, old and corroded bimetallic thermostats in these devices can eventually fuse shut and deliver full, continuous current to a hot plate. 

  • Do not store volatile flammable materials near a hot plate 
  • Limit use of older hot plates for flammable materials. 
  • Check for corrosion of thermostats. Corroded bimetallic thermostats can be repaired or reconfigured to avoid spark hazards. Contact EHS for more info. 

Heating Mantles

Heating mantles are commonly used for heating round-bottomed flasks, reaction kettles and related reaction vessels. These mantles enclose a heating element in a series of layers of fiberglass cloth. As long as the fiberglass coating is not worn or broken, and as long as no water or other chemicals are spilled into the mantle, heating mantles pose no shock hazard.

  • Always use a heating mantle with a variable autotransformer to control the input voltage. Never plug them directly into a 110-V line.
  • Be careful not to exceed the input voltage recommended by the mantle manufacturer. Higher voltages will cause it to overheat, melt the fiberglass insulation and expose the bare heating element. 
  • If the heating mantle has an outer metal case that provides physical protection against damage to the fiberglass, it is good practice to ground the outer metal case to protect against an electric shock if the heating element inside the mantle shorts against the metal case. 
  • Some older equipment might have asbestos insulation rather than fiberglass. Contact EHS to replace the insulation and for proper disposal of the asbestos. 

Oil, Salt and Sand Baths

Electrically heated oil baths are often used to heat small or irregularly shaped vessels or when a stable heat source that can be maintained at a constant temperature is desired. For temperatures below 200 °C, a saturated paraffin oil is often used; for temperatures up to 300 °C, a silicone oil should be used. Care must be taken with hot oil baths not to generate smoke or have the oil burst into flames from overheating.  Molten salt baths, like hot oil baths, offer the advantages of good heat transfer, but have a higher operating range (e.g., 200 to 425oC) and may have a high thermal stability (e.g., 540oC).There are several precautions to take when working with these types of heating devices:

  • When using oil, salt, or sand baths, do not spill water or volatile substances into the baths. Such an accident can splatter hot material over a wide area and cause serious injuries.
  • Take care with hot oil baths not to generate smoke or have the oil burst into flames from overheating.
  • Always monitor oil baths by using a thermometer or other thermal sensing devices to ensure that its temperature does not exceed the flash point of the oil being used. 
  • Fit oil baths left unattended with thermal sensing devices that will turn off the electric power if the bath overheats. 
  • Mix oil baths well to ensure that there are no “hot spots” around the elements that take the surrounding oil to unacceptable temperatures. 
  • Contain heated oil in a vessel that can withstand an accidental strike by a hard object. 
  • Mount baths carefully on a stable horizontal support such as a laboratory jack that can be raised or lowered without danger of the bath tipping over. Iron rings are not acceptable supports for hot baths. 
  • Clamp equipment high enough above a hot bath that if the reaction begins to overheat, the bath can be lowered immediately and replaced with a cooling bath without having to readjust the equipment setup. 
  • Provide secondary containment in the event of a spill of hot oil. 
  • Wear heat-resistant gloves when handling a hot bath. 
  • The reaction container used in a molten salt bath must be able to withstand a very rapid heat-up to a temperature above the melting point of salt. 
  • Take care to keep salt baths dry since they are hygroscopic, which can cause hazardous popping and splattering if the absorbed water vaporizes during heat-up.

Hot Air Baths and Tube Furnaces

Hot air baths are used in the lab as heating devices. Nitrogen is preferred for reactions involving flammable materials. Electrically heated air baths are frequently used to heat small or irregularly shaped vessels. One drawback of the hot air bath is that they have a low heat capacity. As a result, these baths normally have to be heated to 100oC or more above the target temperature. Tube furnaces are often used for high-temperature reactions under pressure. Consider the following when working with either apparatus:

  • Ensure that the heating element is completely enclosed. 
  • For air baths constructed of glass, wrap the vessel with heat resistant tape to contain the glass if it should break. 
  • Sand baths are generally preferable to air baths. 
  • For tube furnaces, carefully select glassware and metal tubes and joints to ensure they are able to withstand the pressure. 
  • Follow safe practices outlined for both electrical safety and pressure and vacuum systems.

Heat Guns

Laboratory heat guns are constructed with a motor-driven fan that blows air over an electrically heated filament. They are frequently used to dry glassware or to heat the upper parts of a distillation apparatus during distillation of high-boiling materials.

Read the Heat Gun Advisory for more information on proper selection and use of a heat gun for research operations.

Microwave Ovens

Use microwave ovens specifically designed for laboratory use. Domestic microwave ovens are not appropriate. Microwave heating presents several potential hazards not commonly encountered with other heating methods: extremely rapid temperature and pressure rise, liquid superheating, arcing, and microwave leakage. Microwave ovens designed for the laboratory have built-in safety features and operation procedures to mitigate or eliminate these hazards. Microwave ovens used in the laboratory may pose several different types of hazards.

  • As with most electrical apparatus, there is the risk of generating sparks that can ignite flammable vapors.
  • Metals placed inside the microwave oven may produce an arc that can ignite flammable materials.
  • Materials placed inside the oven may overheat and ignite.
  • Sealed containers, even if loosely sealed, can build pressure upon expansion during heating, creating a risk of container rupture.

To minimize the risk of these hazards, 

  • Never operate microwave ovens with doors open in order to avoid exposure to microwaves.
  • Do not place wires and other objects between the sealing surface and the door on the oven’s front face. The sealing surfaces must be kept absolutely clean.
  • Never use a microwave oven for both laboratory use and food preparation.
  • Electrically ground the microwave. If use of an extension cord is necessary, only a three-wire cord with a rating equal to or greater than that for the oven should be used.
  • Do not use metal containers and metal-containing objects (e.g., stir bars) in the microwave. They can cause arcing.
  • Do not heat sealed containers in the microwave oven. Even heating a container with a loosened cap or lid poses a significant risk since microwave ovens can heat material so quickly that the lid can seat upward against the threads and containers can explode.
  • Remove screw caps from containers being microwaved. If the sterility of the contents must be preserved, use cotton or foam plugs. Otherwise plug the container with kimwipes to reduce splash potential.
  • Do not modify a microwave for experiemental use.