Distillation 3/24/21

Science with Richard Bleil

Today was an interesting day for deliveries. I’ve been gathering equipment for a Renaissance Fair character based off of an actual figure from history, Marco Braggadino, who called himself an alchemist but was actually a con man. Because of that, he was likely one of the most successful alchemists in history.

Anyway, among the chemical procedures used by alchemists is distillation. I have previously purchased several “retort flasks”, kind of the predecessor of distillation flasks. You’ve likely seen these (or their likenesses). They have a round base, and a long tube coming out of the top that is usually sticking out to the side, although they can also be used with that tube sticking up.

Off to the side, as the contents of the flask heat up and vapors begin to form, they should recondense in that tube as it travels away from the heat source causing it to recondense and drip into a collection container. This is distillation. The distillate is pure (or at least purer) than the original mixture. This is the principle behind distilling alcohols, or “spirits”.

As a side note, with the tube sticking straight up, the distillate (in this case called the “condensate”) will drip back into the base of the flask. This process is “reflux condensing” and is a way to heat the solution while maintaining a constant (or approximately constant) volume. If you’ve ever heated something to dryness you understand how easy it is to burn the solution. With a reflux condenser this does not occur.

Through the years, the ancient art of distillation has been improved. The glassware and equipment is far more sophisticated and the processes have been improved. You’ve probably seen modern condensers in cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks, almost always being misused. They are tubes within tubes. Usually, the inner tube looks like a coil, and the outer one has two ports, if you will, coming out from the side. Properly used, it’s basically a cold-water jacket around the coiled tube, with a very slow trickle of water through the jacket keeping the coiled tube cold. Thinner than the side discharge tube of a retort flask, liquid condenses more efficiently so less product is lost. And, like the retort, you can also put the condenser straight up for reflux heating.

I had several retort flasks already, and an alcohol burner. This would make the most effective demonstration for a ren fair because it is closer to the kind of glassware they would have used in the Renaissance. Unfortunately, the people that owns the grounds may not like open flames even for an educational display, so I did get a heating mantle which can heat the flask with a power cord. I splurged and bought a stirring heating mantle. Inside the base of the heating mangle is a strong magnet on a motor. If you put a Teflon coated magnet inside the reaction flask (or retort flask) and turn on the motor, the two magnets will align, and the Teflon coated magnet will spin. This also prevents burning. You would think it would be good for cooking, but I accidentally swallowed one of the Teflon coated magnets once and I pointed north for a month.

Distillation was poorly understood when it was developed. Scientists believed that through the process of distillation they could literally extract the spirit of plants and small creatures. This is why sometimes a distilled product is, still today, called “spirits”. They tried extracting the spirit of plants and insects frequently. Formic acid, for example, is the “spirit” of red ants. As it turns out, red ants, when they bite, inject the organic formic acid into the bite which is what makes their bites so painful.

One of my favorite stories is of the color purple. Yes, like Prince. A chemist near Paris (as I understand it) tried to extract the spirit of a local slug and ended up distilling a dye that turned clothe purple. He took it to market and the clothe sold out immediately, so, he found more slugs and made more clothe. The more clothe he made, the more popular it became, and the more popular it became, the more slugs he used until the slugs started to die out. As the slugs became difficult to find, the cost of the clothe increased until, eventually, only the very wealthy royalty class could afford to buy it. To this day, purple is known as the “color of royalty”.

Today, I have been eating oranges like I’m crazy. My first at-home experiment will be the steam distillation of orange rinds for their oils. I’m planning on trying the retort flasks and open flame for the experiment as that is what I’m hoping to use at the Ren fair. But, if I start having too much fun, this new equipment will be great for home experimentation. Unfortunately, if the police ever see it, their first thought will be “meth lab”. I can only imagine their surprise when the glassware tests positive for orange.

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