Distillation: A History of Evolution and Advancements (3)
Alembics often featured a cooling system around the beak, using cold water, for example, to improve the efficiency of alcohol condensation. These were called boilers.
Today, replicas and alembics have largely been replaced by more efficient distillation methods in most industrial processes. However, boilers are still widely used in the production of some fine spirits such as cognac, Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, tequila, pisco, and certain vodkas. Smugglers in different countries also utilize contraband stills made from various materials (wood, clay, stainless steel). Additionally, small-scale stills are marketed for home use in the production of floral water or essential oils.
The early forms of distillation involved batch processes that utilized vaporization and condensation. Purity was improved through further distillation of the condensate. Larger volumes were processed simply by repeating the distillation. According to reports, chemists would perform between 500 and 600 distillations to obtain a pure compound.
In the early 19th century, the basic concepts of modern techniques such as preheating and reflux were developed. In 1822, Anthony Perrier developed one of the first continuous stills, and then in 1826, Robert Stein improved upon that design to create his column still. In 1830, Aeneas Coffey obtained a patent to further enhance the design.
Coffey’s continuous still can be considered as the precursor to modern petrochemical units. French engineer Armand Savalle developed his vapor regulator around 1846. In 1877, Ernest Solvay received a patent in the United States for a tray column intended for ammonia distillation, and in that same year and the following years, advances were made in this field for distilling oils and alcoholic beverages.
With the emergence of chemical engineering as a discipline in the late 19th century, scientific methods could be applied instead of empirical ones. The development of the petroleum industry in the early 20th century drove the advancement of precise design methods, such as Ernest Thiele’s McCabe-Thiele method and the Fenske equation. Furthermore, with the availability of powerful computers, direct simulations of distillation columns became possible.
Throughout history, distillation has undergone significant evolution, transitioning from rudimentary alchemical practices to modern methods based on scientific principles and precise techniques. Advances in chemistry and engineering have revolutionized distillation, enabling greater efficiency, purity, and production capacity.
Today, distillation continues to be a fundamental part of numerous industries, including petrochemical production, food, and alcoholic beverages. Although traditional alembics have been largely replaced by more sophisticated and automated equipment, the basic principles of distillation remain the same.
In conclusion, distillation has come a long way from its humble beginnings in alchemy to becoming an advanced scientific and technical discipline. Thanks to constant advancements and improvements in distillation methods and equipment, we can enjoy a wide range of pure and refined products that meet our needs and desires.