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Early Copper Stills
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Early Copper Stills

Distillation is a process of physically separating units and is not in any way a chemical reaction. Distillation as a commercial process or using copper stills has a slew of applications. For one it is utilized to separate crude oil into specific fractions for various uses. Water for instance is distilled in order to remove any of its impurities.

As an example seawater is separated from salt. Air is also distilled to separate oxygen argon and nitrogen for industrial purposes. The process of fermenting distilled solutions has long been used in ancient times in order to create distilled beverages with a high alcohol content.

The history of distillation

The initial evidence of the distillation process or an early form of copper stills was seen from alchemists in Ancient Greece during the 1st century AD in Alexandria. Also distilled water has long been in existence since c. 200 when the process was described by Alexander of Aphrodisias.

Arabs later learned the distillation process using copper stills from Egyptians who used distillation extensively in their experiments. During the 12th century a solid evidence of alcohol distillation or an early form of a whiskey still was seen from the School of Salermo.

Meanwhile the 13th century is where Tadeo Alderotti developed fractional distillation. In the 1500’s Hieronymus Braunschweig – a German alchemist – published The Book of the Art of Distillation Liber de arte destillandi. It is considered as the first discovered book exclusively dedicated to the topic of distillation. This was followed by an expanded version published in 1512.

Early types of distillation involved batch processes via a single vaporization and condensation. Purity was further improved through distilling the condensate. More volume was processed through repetition. Chemists were said to produce more than 500 distillations to acquire a pure compound.

During the 19th century, modern techniques involved reflux and pre-heating. In the year 1830, a patent was given to Aeneas Coffey by the British for a whiskey column. This has been said to be the archetype of petrochemical modern units.