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I would like to ask the experts of this chemistry community their opinions on which balance is more accurate and effective to use in a high school chemistry lab- a triple beam balance or a digital balance. I would appreciate your rationales for your answers as well. Thanks!

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    $\begingroup$ I would say digital scales would be more robust, what is needed in high school environment. $\endgroup$
    – Poutnik
    Aug 3 at 5:24
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    $\begingroup$ on the other hand, making people use a beam balance will surely teach them more. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Aug 3 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ Consider a different perspective, seen e.g., in mechanical or civil engineering: what are the specifications the device in question must fulfill to be good enough; what is a nice have, or irrelevant? Note these parameters e.g., what is the accuracy yo need in the experiments ahead, then look out for a balance. $\endgroup$
    – Buttonwood
    Aug 3 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ Having used a triple beam and chain weights in college, I doubt a modern HS student could reliably handle them. $\endgroup$ Aug 3 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ Orthogonal suggestion: The United States penny weighs 2.5 grams; the nickel, 5 grams. Along with UK coinage, sub-gram accuracy can be achieved using a simple balance and a modest investment of under 20 USD. I haven't explored completely, but I suspect milligram tolerance can be achieved with US and UK coins alone. Add coinage from other countries and you're all set. $\endgroup$
    – Todd Minehardt
    Aug 3 at 23:54
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Recall that Theodore W. Richards got a Nobel Prize on "in recognition of his accurate determinations of the atomic weight of a large number of chemical elements." Guess which year was that? 1914!! Digital balances did not exist then. All high accuracy balances were mechanical balances then.

The point is that you can have a very crappy digital balance or a triple beam balance (= low price, no certification). All the accuracy of balances depends on their calibration with known weights. The accuracy of those known weights, depends on how they were calibrated by national and international standardizing agencies.

It all depends on the purpose. For organic synthesis work, a triple beam balance would be fine where ultrahigh accuracy of measured weight is not a big deal. What is being weighed and what is the level of accuracy required? How many accurate digits are required?

In short, both digital and triple beam balances are fine for routine work. We cannot say one is more accurate than the other. After all, the digital balance is also requires mechanical movement (i.e., it also has moving parts which you cannot see).

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    $\begingroup$ I would say durability is more important than accuracy in high school lab context( and the former affects the latter during the time too) . :-) I remember in my high school days in 1980-84 that our very classical mechanical scales were frequently out of order. Students are the ultimate realization of the Murphy's law saying even things that you cannot imagine be broken can be broken. $\endgroup$
    – Poutnik
    Aug 3 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ I have not said digital ones would survive. I have just said they may survive longer. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Poutnik
    Aug 3 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ The worst part is trying not to drop the calibrated weights on the floor… Ive experienced even expensive digital scales going out of calibration just in a few days. Learned the importance of checking them daily. $\endgroup$
    – dval98
    Aug 3 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ In pharma, I was told that they calibrate balances daily. No chances for any mistakes. $\endgroup$
    – M. Farooq
    Aug 3 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ @M.Farooq yes we do… every morning $\endgroup$
    – dval98
    Aug 3 at 17:47
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A digital balance is much easier to use. I guarantee some of your HS students are going to have huge errors when using a triple beam because they don't know how to read it. That's not necessarily a downside—you might want to give them training in the skill of using and reading a mechanical balance. OTOH, if you want them to focus on other aspects of the lab, or are concerned about time constraints, then a digital balance (which can be used much more quickly) would be the way to go.

As far as accuracy goes, at the entry level for calibrated quality scales (~\$150), you can get a digital balance with NIST-traceable calibration and the following specs (Cole-Parmer Symmetry Compact Portable Toploading Balance, 300g x 0.01g):

enter image description here

Triple beam balances typically only have 0.1 g readability. To get 0.01 g readability in a beam balance, you'd need to add finer adjustment, with either a dial or an extra beam. These get pricer (~$250+). Here's a quadruple-beam balance with 0.1 g readability, though without specs for repeatability or linearity: Ohaus 311-00 Cent-O-Gram Overhead Mechanical Balance, 311g x 0.01g.

But for a HS lab, you'll probably want to spend more like $30/scale. There the only way to determine the relative accuracy of the triple beam and digital balances will be to buy a set of calibrated weights and check for yourself. [Regardless of what claim the vendors make.] [And note that there will probably be a lot of inter-unit variation at that cost level, where some will be much more linear than others.]

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  • $\begingroup$ Calibrating a balance with standard weights is irrelevant, if the actual weights used by the students are contaminated and/or corroded by who knows what. Of course contamination may occur during a student's experiment, so it is not even a systematic measuring error. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Aug 3 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ "Calibrating a balance with standard weights is irrelevant", no it is not. It is a norm. First, because students don't calibrate balances. It is done by a certified technician annually or a qualified teacher and there is an elaborate procedure to do it. Standard weights are highly protected so the chances of contamination is very low. $\endgroup$
    – M. Farooq
    Aug 3 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ Would suggest an edit so the links are a link and not just pasted in the body $\endgroup$ Aug 3 at 16:15

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