Distillation is a chemical process where a mixture made of two or more liquids (called "components") with different boiling points can be separated from each other. The mixture is heated until one of the components boils (turns to a vapor). The vapor is then fed into a condenser, which cools the vapour and changes it back into a liquid that is called distillate'. What remains in the original container is called the "residue". A fractionating column (that is a distillation column with more than two outlets) can be used to improve the separation. An oil refinery uses fractional distillation to purify crude oil so that it can become useful and can be used for various things.
Distillation can be done anywhere, whether it's in a house or a laboratory, but in most countries it is illegal to distil alcohol without a license. Illegally distilled alcoholic drinks are called moonshine.
Sometimes the desalination of water is called also "distillation", but this is a different process. In fact water distillation is used to separate a liquid (water) from solids (salts), instead the alcohol distillation is used to separate two liquids (alcohol and water).
- See also: Distilled beverage
Distillation was known in the ancient Indian subcontinent, evident from baked clay retorts and receivers found at Taxila and Charsadda in modern Pakistan, dating back to the early centuries of the Common Era. These "Gandhara stills" were only capable of producing very weak liquor, as there was no efficient means of collecting the vapors at low heat.
Evidence of distillation also comes from alchemists working in Alexandria, Roman Egypt, in the 1st century. Distilled water has been known since at least c. 200, when Alexander of Aphrodisias described the process. Work on distilling other liquids continued in early Byzantine Egypt, under Zosimus of Panopolis in the 3rd century. Distillation in China could have begun during the Eastern Han dynasty (1st–2nd centuries), but the distillation of beverages began in the Jin (12th–13th centuries) and Southern Song (10th–13th centuries) dynasties according to archaeological evidence.
Clear evidence of the distillation of alcohol comes from the Arab chemist Al-Kindi, in 9th-century Iraq. The process later spread to Italy, where it was described by the School of Salerno in the 12th century. Fractional distillation was developed by Tadeo Alderotti in the 13th century. A still was found in an archaeological site in Qinglong, Hebei province, in China, dating to the 12th century. Distilled beverages were common during the Yuan dynasty (13th–14th centuries).
In 1500, German alchemist Hieronymus Braunschweig published Liber de arte destillandi (The Book of the Art of Distillation) the first book solely dedicated to the subject of distillation, followed in 1512 by a much expanded version. In 1651, John French published The Art of Distillation the first major English compendium of practice, though it has been claimed that much of it derives from Braunschweig's work. This includes diagrams with people in them showing the industrial rather than bench scale of the operation.
As alchemy evolved into the science of chemistry, vessels called retorts became used for distillations. Both alembics and retorts are forms of glassware with long necks pointing to the side at a downward angle which acted as air-cooled condensers to condense the distillate and let it drip downward for collection. Later, copper alembics were invented. Riveted joints were often kept tight by using various mixtures, for instance a dough made of rye flour. These alembics often featured a cooling system around the beak, using cold water for instance, which made the condensation of alcohol more efficient. These were called pot stills. Today, the retorts and pot stills have been largely supplanted by more efficient distillation methods in most industrial processes. However, the pot still is still widely used for the elaboration of some fine alcohols such as cognac, Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, tequila and some vodkas. Pot stills made of various materials (wood, clay, stainless steel) are also used by bootleggers in various countries. Small pot stills are also sold for the domestic production of flower water or essential oils.
Early forms of distillation were batch processes using one vaporization and one condensation. Purity was improved by further distillation of the condensate. Greater volumes were processed by simply repeating the distillation. Chemists were reported to carry out as many as 500 to 600 distillations in order to obtain a pure compound.
In the early 19th century the basics of modern techniques including pre-heating and reflux were developed. In 1822, Anthony Perrier developed one of the first continuous stills. In 1826, Robert Stein improved that design to make his patent still. In 1830, Aeneas Coffey got a patent for improving that design. Coffey's continuous still may be regarded as the archetype of modern petrochemical units. The French engineer Armand Savalle developed his steam regulator around 1846. In 1877, Ernest Solvay was granted a U.S. Patent for a tray column for ammonia distillation and the same and subsequent years saw developments of this theme for oil and spirits.
With the emergence of chemical engineering as a discipline at the end of the 19th century, scientific rather than empirical methods could be applied. The developing petroleum industry in the early 20th century provided the impetus for the development of accurate design methods such as the McCabe–Thiele method and the Fenske equation. The availability of powerful computers has also allowed direct computer simulation of distillation columns.
Applications of distillation
The application of distillation can roughly be divided in four groups: laboratory scale, industrial distillation, distillation of herbs for perfumery and medicinals (herbal distillate), and food processing. The latter two are distinctively different from the former two in that in the processing of beverages and herbs, the distillation is not used as a true purification method but more to transfer all volatiles from the source materials to the distillate.
The main difference between laboratory scale distillation and industrial distillation is that laboratory scale distillation is often performed batch-wise, whereas industrial distillation often occurs continuously. In batch distillation, the composition of the source material, the vapors of the distilling compounds and the distillate change during the distillation. In batch distillation, a still is charged (supplied) with a batch of feed mixture, which is then separated into its component fractions which are collected sequentially from most volatile to less volatile, with the bottoms (remaining least or non-volatile fraction) removed at the end. The still can then be recharged and the process repeated.
In continuous distillation, the source materials, vapors, and distillate are kept at a constant composition by carefully replenishing the source material and removing fractions from both vapor and liquid in the system. This results in a better control of the separation process.
Idealized distillation model
The boiling point of a liquid is the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid equals the pressure around the liquid, enabling bubbles to form without being crushed. A special case is the normal boiling point, where the vapor pressure of the liquid equals the ambient atmospheric pressure.
It is a common misconception that in a liquid mixture at a given pressure, each component boils at the boiling point corresponding to the given pressure and the vapors of each component will collect separately and purely. This, however, does not occur even in an idealized system. Idealized models of distillation are essentially governed by Raoult's law and Dalton's law, and assume that vapor–liquid equilibria are attained.
Raoult's law states that the vapor pressure of a solution is dependent on 1) the vapor pressure of each chemical component in the solution and 2) the fraction of solution each component makes up a.k.a. the mole fraction. This law applies to ideal solutions, or solutions that have different components but whose molecular interactions are the same as or very similar to pure solutions.
Dalton's law states that the total pressure is the sum of the partial pressures of each individual component in the mixture. When a multi-component liquid is heated, the vapor pressure of each component will rise, thus causing the total vapor pressure to rise. When the total vapor pressure reaches the pressure surrounding the liquid, boiling occurs and liquid turns to gas throughout the bulk of the liquid. Note that a mixture with a given composition has one boiling point at a given pressure, when the components are mutually soluble. A mixture of constant composition does not have multiple boiling points.
An implication of one boiling point is that lighter components never cleanly "boil first". At boiling point, all volatile components boil, but for a component, its percentage in the vapor is the same as its percentage of the total vapor pressure. Lighter components have a higher partial pressure and thus are concentrated in the vapor, but heavier volatile components also have a (smaller) partial pressure and necessarily evaporate also, albeit being less concentrated in the vapor. Indeed, batch distillation and fractionation succeed by varying the composition of the mixture. In batch distillation, the batch evaporates, which changes its composition; in fractionation, liquid higher in the fractionation column contains more lights and boils at lower temperatures. Therefore, starting from a given mixture, it appears to have a boiling range instead of a boiling point, although this is because its composition changes: each intermediate mixture has its own, singular boiling point.
The idealized model is accurate in the case of chemically similar liquids, such as benzene and toluene. In other cases, severe deviations from Raoult's law and Dalton's law are observed, most famously in the mixture of ethanol and water. These compounds, when heated together, form an azeotrope, which is a composition with a boiling point higher or lower than the boiling point of each separate liquid. Virtually all liquids, when mixed and heated, will display azeotropic behaviour. Although there are computational methods that can be used to estimate the behavior of a mixture of arbitrary components, the only way to obtain accurate vapor–liquid equilibrium data is by measurement.
It is not possible to completely purify a mixture of components by distillation, as this would require each component in the mixture to have a zero partial pressure. If ultra-pure products are the goal, then further chemical separation must be applied. When a binary mixture is evaporated and the other component, e.g. a salt, has zero partial pressure for practical purposes, the process is simpler and is called evaporation in engineering.
Heating an ideal mixture of two volatile substances A and B (with A having the higher volatility, or lower boiling point) in a batch distillation setup (such as in an apparatus depicted in the opening figure) until the mixture is boiling results in a vapor above the liquid which contains a mixture of A and B. The ratio between A and B in the vapor will be different from the ratio in the liquid: the ratio in the liquid will be determined by how the original mixture was prepared, while the ratio in the vapor will be enriched in the more volatile compound, A (due to Raoult's Law, see above). The vapor goes through the condenser and is removed from the system. This in turn means that the ratio of compounds in the remaining liquid is now different from the initial ratio (i.e., more enriched in B than the starting liquid).
The result is that the ratio in the liquid mixture is changing, becoming richer in component B. This causes the boiling point of the mixture to rise, which in turn results in a rise in the temperature in the vapor, which results in a changing ratio of A : B in the gas phase (as distillation continues, there is an increasing proportion of B in the gas phase). This results in a slowly changing ratio A : B in the distillate.
If the difference in vapor pressure between the two components A and B is large (generally expressed as the difference in boiling points), the mixture in the beginning of the distillation is highly enriched in component A, and when component A has distilled off, the boiling liquid is enriched in component B.
Continuous distillation is an ongoing distillation in which a liquid mixture is continuously (without interruption) fed into the process and separated fractions are removed continuously as output streams occur over time during the operation. Continuous distillation produces a minimum of two output fractions, including at least one volatile distillate fraction, which has boiled and been separately captured as a vapor, and then condensed to a liquid. There is always a bottoms (or residue) fraction, which is the least volatile residue that has not been separately captured as a condensed vapor.
Continuous distillation differs from batch distillation in the respect that concentrations should not change over time. Continuous distillation can be run at a steady state for an arbitrary amount of time. For any source material of specific composition, the main variables that affect the purity of products in continuous distillation are the reflux ratio and the number of theoretical equilibrium stages, in practice determined by the number of trays or the height of packing. Reflux is a flow from the condenser back to the column, which generates a recycle that allows a better separation with a given number of trays. Equilibrium stages are ideal steps where compositions achieve vapor–liquid equilibrium, repeating the separation process and allowing better separation given a reflux ratio. A column with a high reflux ratio may have fewer stages, but it refluxes a large amount of liquid, giving a wide column with a large holdup. Conversely, a column with a low reflux ratio must have a large number of stages, thus requiring a taller column.
Laboratory scale distillation
Laboratory scale distillations are almost exclusively run as batch distillations. The device used in distillation, sometimes referred to as a still, consists at a minimum of a reboiler or pot in which the source material is heated, a condenser in which the heated vapour is cooled back to the liquid state, and a receiver in which the concentrated or purified liquid, called the distillate, is collected. Several laboratory scale techniques for distillation exist (see also distillation types).
In simple distillation, the vapor is immediately channeled into a condenser. Consequently, the distillate is not pure but rather its composition is identical to the composition of the vapors at the given temperature and pressure. That concentration follows Raoult's law.
As a result, simple distillation is effective only when the liquid boiling points differ greatly (rule of thumb is 25 °C) or when separating liquids from non-volatile solids or oils. For these cases, the vapor pressures of the components are usually different enough that the distillate may be sufficiently pure for its intended purpose.
For many cases, the boiling points of the components in the mixture will be sufficiently close that Raoult's law must be taken into consideration. Therefore, fractional distillation must be used in order to separate the components by repeated vaporization-condensation cycles within a packed fractionating column. This separation, by successive distillations, is also referred to as rectification.
As the solution to be purified is heated, its vapors rise to the fractionating column. As it rises, it cools, condensing on the condenser walls and the surfaces of the packing material. Here, the condensate continues to be heated by the rising hot vapors; it vaporizes once more. However, the composition of the fresh vapors are determined once again by Raoult's law. Each vaporization-condensation cycle (called a theoretical plate) will yield a purer solution of the more volatile component. In reality, each cycle at a given temperature does not occur at exactly the same position in the fractionating column; theoretical plate is thus a concept rather than an accurate description.
More theoretical plates lead to better separations. A spinning band distillation system uses a spinning band of Teflon or metal to force the rising vapors into close contact with the descending condensate, increasing the number of theoretical plates.
Like vacuum distillation, steam distillation is a method for distilling compounds which are heat-sensitive. The temperature of the steam is easier to control than the surface of a heating element, and allows a high rate of heat transfer without heating at a very high temperature. This process involves bubbling steam through a heated mixture of the raw material. By Raoult's law, some of the target compound will vaporize (in accordance with its partial pressure). The vapor mixture is cooled and condensed, usually yielding a layer of oil and a layer of water.
Steam distillation of various aromatic herbs and flowers can result in two products; an essential oil as well as a watery herbal distillate. The essential oils are often used in perfumery and aromatherapy while the watery distillates have many applications in aromatherapy, food processing and skin care.
Some compounds have very high boiling points. To boil such compounds, it is often better to lower the pressure at which such compounds are boiled instead of increasing the temperature. Once the pressure is lowered to the vapor pressure of the compound (at the given temperature), boiling and the rest of the distillation process can commence. This technique is referred to as vacuum distillation and it is commonly found in the laboratory in the form of the rotary evaporator.
This technique is also very useful for compounds which boil beyond their decomposition temperature at atmospheric pressure and which would therefore be decomposed by any attempt to boil them under atmospheric pressure.
Molecular distillation is vacuum distillation below the pressure of 0.01 torr. 0.01 torr is one order of magnitude above high vacuum, where fluids are in the free molecular flow regime, i.e. the mean free path of molecules is comparable to the size of the equipment. The gaseous phase no longer exerts significant pressure on the substance to be evaporated, and consequently, rate of evaporation no longer depends on pressure. That is, because the continuum assumptions of fluid dynamics no longer apply, mass transport is governed by molecular dynamics rather than fluid dynamics. Thus, a short path between the hot surface and the cold surface is necessary, typically by suspending a hot plate covered with a film of feed next to a cold plate with a line of sight in between. Molecular distillation is used industrially for purification of oils.
Large scale industrial distillation applications include both batch and continuous fractional, vacuum, azeotropic, extractive, and steam distillation. The most widely used industrial applications of continuous, steady-state fractional distillation are in petroleum refineries, petrochemical and chemical plants and natural gas processing plants.
To control and optimize such industrial distillation, a standardized laboratory method, ASTM D86, is established. This test method extends to the atmospheric distillation of petroleum products using a laboratory batch distillation unit to quantitatively determine the boiling range characteristics of petroleum products.
Industrial distillation is typically performed in large, vertical cylindrical columns known as distillation towers or distillation columns with diameters ranging from about 65 centimeters to 16 meters and heights ranging from about 6 meters to 90 meters or more. When the process feed has a diverse composition, as in distilling crude oil, liquid outlets at intervals up the column allow for the withdrawal of different fractions or products having different boiling points or boiling ranges. The "lightest" products (those with the lowest boiling point) exit from the top of the columns and the "heaviest" products (those with the highest boiling point) exit from the bottom of the column and are often called the bottoms.
Industrial towers use reflux to achieve a more complete separation of products. Reflux refers to the portion of the condensed overhead liquid product from a distillation or fractionation tower that is returned to the upper part of the tower as shown in the schematic diagram of a typical, large-scale industrial distillation tower. Inside the tower, the downflowing reflux liquid provides cooling and condensation of the upflowing vapors thereby increasing the efficiency of the distillation tower. The more reflux that is provided for a given number of theoretical plates, the better the tower's separation of lower boiling materials from higher boiling materials. Alternatively, the more reflux that is provided for a given desired separation, the fewer the number of theoretical plates required. Chemical engineers must choose what combination of reflux rate and number of plates is both economically and physically feasible for the products purified in the distillation column.
Such industrial fractionating towers are also used in cryogenic air separation, producing liquid oxygen, liquid nitrogen, and high purity argon. Distillation of chlorosilanes also enables the production of high-purity silicon for use as a semiconductor.
Design and operation of a distillation tower depends on the feed and desired products. Given a simple, binary component feed, analytical methods such as the McCabe–Thiele method or the Fenske equation can be used. For a multi-component feed, simulation models are used both for design and operation. Moreover, the efficiencies of the vapor–liquid contact devices (referred to as "plates" or "trays") used in distillation towers are typically lower than that of a theoretical 100% efficient equilibrium stage. Hence, a distillation tower needs more trays than the number of theoretical vapor–liquid equilibrium stages. A variety of models have been postulated to estimate tray efficiencies.
In modern industrial uses, a packing material is used in the column instead of trays when low pressure drops across the column are required. Other factors that favor packing are: vacuum systems, smaller diameter columns, corrosive systems, systems prone to foaming, systems requiring low liquid holdup, and batch distillation. Conversely, factors that favor plate columns are: presence of solids in feed, high liquid rates, large column diameters, complex columns, columns with wide feed composition variation, columns with a chemical reaction, absorption columns, columns limited by foundation weight tolerance, low liquid rate, large turn-down ratio and those processes subject to process surges.
This packing material can either be random dumped packing (1–3" wide) such as Raschig rings or structured sheet metal. Liquids tend to wet the surface of the packing and the vapors pass across this wetted surface, where mass transfer takes place. Unlike conventional tray distillation in which every tray represents a separate point of vapor–liquid equilibrium, the vapor–liquid equilibrium curve in a packed column is continuous. However, when modeling packed columns, it is useful to compute a number of "theoretical stages" to denote the separation efficiency of the packed column with respect to more traditional trays. Differently shaped packings have different surface areas and void space between packings. Both of these factors affect packing performance.
Another factor in addition to the packing shape and surface area that affects the performance of random or structured packing is the liquid and vapor distribution entering the packed bed. The number of theoretical stages required to make a given separation is calculated using a specific vapor to liquid ratio. If the liquid and vapor are not evenly distributed across the superficial tower area as it enters the packed bed, the liquid to vapor ratio will not be correct in the packed bed and the required separation will not be achieved. The packing will appear to not be working properly. The height equivalent to a theoretical plate (HETP) will be greater than expected. The problem is not the packing itself but the mal-distribution of the fluids entering the packed bed. Liquid mal-distribution is more frequently the problem than vapor. The design of the liquid distributors used to introduce the feed and reflux to a packed bed is critical to making the packing perform to it maximum efficiency. Methods of evaluating the effectiveness of a liquid distributor to evenly distribute the liquid entering a packed bed can be found in references. Considerable work as been done on this topic by Fractionation Research, Inc. (commonly known as FRI).
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