Easy, Economical, Ecological Distillation

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Introduction: Easy, Economical, Ecological Distillation

Amateur chemistry can be educational, fun and rewarding; however, it can be intimidating to begin, especially with the cost of professional laboratory equipment. Fortunately, this is amateur chemistry, and we can use amateur equipment, a process which not only saves you money but also helps you to understand what's going on! In this Instructable I'll demonstrate how I built a distillation apparatus for only a few dollars.

This device is useful for a wide range of hobbyists and makers - in addition to amateur chemists, their users include brewers, survivalists, herbalists, and more. Also, I typically make a point of using new material or retail-supplied material as little as possible and have a strong tendency to blur the line between thriftiness and cheapness. Though it can be difficult at times, this also helps me build independence from prefabricated materials and is an avenue through which I can exercise creativity in problem-solving.

Friendly safety reminder: If you want to use this, be sure you check everything out first to make sure your application doesn't involve issues I didn't address in this Instructable. The comments section is a great start - plenty of others with more experience than me have added their thoughts there. I listed what I thought of in the steps, but of course I couldn't have thought of everything.

Step 1: Motivation

You probably already know why you want to build a distillation apparatus. If not, I can certainly give you a few:

  • The application common to all my fellow hobbyists and DIYers is purifying water, since we all use water numerous times daily. If you need to purify water and remove contaminants from it, you could do so by distillation. This might be done for drinking or use in a humidifier. Keep in mind that, while we can purify by distillation with a simple apparatus like this, that a fraction of the impurities will still remain.
  • Many hobbyists who construct devices for distillation, however, are doing so with alcohol in mind. When working with alcohol, though, there are more complicated factors that I, being one who doesn't drink, am unfamiliar with. If you do want to distill alcohol, check whether or not it's legal where you are and then consult an experienced guide. Also, be sure it won't cause your distillation tube to degrade - many companies post free solvent/plastic compatibility charts like this one online - and find a heat source that doesn't involve an open flame. (I'm sure you knew better, but a reminder couldn't hurt.)
  • But why do I want to build a distillation apparatus? Amateur chemists often find commercial suppliers for reagents in everything from garden to automotive supply stores, and sometimes these finds require concentration, purification, or separation. In my case, I've been interested for a while in polymers and I'd love to make my own - I know of plastics made from borax and glue, milk (its protein casein), corn starch, agar, and gelatin Ethylene glycol is readily available as antifreeze, but other chemicals are added - I want to isolate ethylene glycol because of its dual hydroxyl groups, which I'm hoping will be useful in polymerization.
  • I mentioned before that herbalists might use distillation because essential oils can be distilled to concentrate them. As with brewing, I'm not involved with any of the details of essential oils, so it's your responsibility to double-check safety and legality here.

Step 2: Scientific Explanation

To start, we need to think about how distillation works. In short, we're using the facts that different liquids will boil at different temperatures to separate liquids, or to separate them from dissolved solids. It's not quite that simple, but the approximation works well enough for our purposes - if the purity isn't high enough after one distillation, we can simply do it again. Anyway, once the distillate has evaporated and most of the other components of your mixture are left behind, it's forced through the distillate tube into the condenser, as that's the only path available. While there it is cooled by the condenser bath and returns to its liquid state, and gravity then pulls it down through the tube into a its new container, separate from the other solutes.

In reality, each liquid is independently competing against its own gaseous phase. In a pot of water at room temperature, through Brownian motion molecules are constantly flying free from the liquid into the gaseous atmosphere, but just as many water molecules are diving back in. Overall, there is no change, and we say that the system is in dynamic equilibrium. However, if we put the pot of water on a lit stove, the additional thermal kinetic energy of the water molecules means more are able to break free. Eventually, enough are in the atmosphere that as many come back in as are let loose and we reach equilibrium again. We quantify this in terms of vapor pressure, which is the pressure a vapor exerts when in equilibrium with its condensed (usually liquid) state. The boiling point is simply when the vapor pressure reaches the pressure actually exerted by the surroundings (atmospheric pressure, unless the container is sealed). For that reason, above the boiling point equilibrium no longer involves any liquid - it would all be gaseous. Imagine we're trying to distill isopropyl alcohol (boiling at 180.7°F) and water (212°F) - at 180.7°F, when all the isopropyl alcohol has evaporated, much of the water should also have evaporated at equilibrium - see this Wikipedia page. We can work the system, however, by repeating the distillation process to continue removing about the same proportion of the remaining water. I'm not sure if there's any benefit to trying to work quickly before equilibrium is reached since you'll have less of both fluids in the gas phase, not just less of the one with the higher boiling point, but that may also help.

Step 3: Materials List

Now it's time for the list of materials and a little thought behind each:

Distillation vessel - This is the container for your sample you want to distill. Size and shape may matter depending on your heat source - I wanted to keep it simple and use a stove, so the natural choice was a plain old pot. Other thrifty options are a fishbowl or vase if you want glass or a coffee or paint can if metal's your thing. Each has pros and cons. Glass is very inert, has low thermal conductivity, is transparent, and can crack if heated too quickly. Metal is usually stable but can be corroded more easily, has high thermal conductivity, is opaque and won't crack when quickly heated.

Lid - I used a glass lid with a ventilation hole I found for $1 at Goodwill. This makes it easy to remove and return the lid if I want to add something to the distillation vessel, and I can see inside. The ventilation hole makes it extremely easy to add the condenser tube - if you can't find one, you could try unscrewing the handle and putting the tube through the screwhole. I wasn't worried about the lid cracking as I turned up the heat because it's not taking heat directly from the stove's flames. It will still be subjected to the high temperatures inside the vessel eventually, though, so it still needs to be able to withstand them.

Distillate tube - I don't quite know what mine is made of since I picked it up at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I tested it and it seems to work fine, and in fact I was able to take advantage of the way it becomes formable under heat. If you have a metal tube, that would probably be even better since it could dissipate heat more quickly. Plastic and metal (if it's thin enough) can both be wound up inside the condenser too. If your sample is reactive, you may have to find a glass tube and pick a longer container for a condenser. Be warned that in my case the tube began to droop (i.e. it started to melt, but the fire wasn't hot enough for it to melt completely) near the distillation vessel, and some plastics may release undesirable chemicals when heated. I definitely will be improving this design with a metal tube.

Condenser bath - I used a plastic jar from Costco's mixed nuts since that was the right size, on hand, and easy to work with. Since we'll be keeping this cool (in comparison to the distillate, at least) I'm not concerned with its stability under high heat.

Drainage tube - This tube doesn't need to be anything special; it'll be used to let out warm water and only needs to be flexible and longer than the condenser is tall. That way, we can stop drainage by simply bending the tube upward so gravity holds it in. Alternatively, if you want to be fancy and happen to have a nice manually controlled valve, you could just use that instead.

Caulk - I found a tube of kitchen and sink caulk already open in our workshop - lucky me! This is how we'll seal holes we drill in the condenser for the tube. All it needs to be is watertight, so if you don't have this and can find something else that prevents leakage, go for it.

Distillate receptacle - When your distillate comes out of the condenser, it'll need somewhere to go. Your choice again depends on the distillate, for as usual, you don't want the distillate and container to react. You may need to think about other properties of the distillate as well - for example, will much evaporate at room temperature and pressure?

Step 4: Prepare the Distillation Tube

Let's get to building it! The first step is shaping our distillation tube. If yours is metal, bending it should be straightforward - you won't have to worry about it bouncing back into its original shape. If you're using plastic that can be repositioned when heated like I am, you can use some binder clips and twist-ties to wrap it up the way you want and then put it into a pot of boiling water. Mine kept its new shape after about two minutes in the water. This step may not be absolutely necessary, but it certainly makes the tube easier to work with, and it's convenient to do if you were already hardboiling eggs anyway. (I don't know where the tube has been, so I was sure to cook the eggs before the tube.)

Afterward, I found that it would have been better to have more unwound tube on the ends so that I would be less restrained when positioning everything.

Step 5: Start Adding the Tubes

Next it's time to secure the tubes inside the condenser bath. I simply found bits that roughly matched my tubes' sizes and drilled holes where I wanted them. It's best to put the drainage tube in first since the distillation tube will be in the way otherwise... unfortunately, I didn't decide to add one until after I put in the distillation tube, but it still worked out find. Put the drainage tube somewhere low, since only water above the tube will be able to drain out. I wouldn't put it on the bottom, though, because that would be problematic when you want to set it down somewhere. I kept mine long enough that I could simply tuck it into the top when I'm not draining it.

This was my first time working with caulk, so if you're new to it I encourage you to seek more experienced sources. All I can say is that you want to be sure you have a good seal on it; it's best to get both the inside and outside of the condenser. I used disposable gloves so I could push it into crevices manually and be sure it was well-sealed.

Step 6: Add the Other Tube

You want the distillation tube to be in contact with the water which will later fill this container as much as possible, so if you used a flexible coil like me or something similar, try to situate it such that it's not bunched up but instead has some space between turns. Also consider the height of your distillation vessel - ideally you won't have to set your condenser on a pedestal to connect everything together. As the gas condenses back into a liquid, gravity will be responsible for pulling it down through the tube, so be sure you also have the tube going downward all the way, including the spout at the very end where the distillate will eventually exit.

Step 7: Testing the Apparatus and Future Modifications

When you're all done, what better to do then test it? The boiling temperatures of the components of your sample will determine the temperatures you need to work with, which in turn may influence your choice of heat source and condenser bath fluid. You'll need your heat to reach the boiling points and you'll need your condenser to be at a temperature lower than that - in each case, the greater the difference, the more quickly you can do things, although you should keep the temperature of the distillation vessel under control so you can boil off one fluid and then another rather than just boiling everything off. To get an idea of some common flame temperatures, see Wikipedia. For my purposes right now, a stove flame and tap water (with some ice to keep the temperature lower for a longer time) are perfectly sufficient.

Retrospectively, I'd like to have given it a longer distillation tube so my condenser wouldn't be as close to the heat source as it is. I also would like to add a thermometer so I can infer what should be boiling and what should be mostly liquid from the temperature. In keeping with the made-from-scratch spirit of this project, I'd go for a barbecue or oven thermometer that can read temperatures up to 500°F.

There's more to be done and I plan to build another with the insights I've gained from this first try. Nonetheless, it worked, for using a 9V battery and multimeter, I tested it the water's conductivity by measuring the current before and after distillation and found a decrease by a factor of ten! Thanks for reading, everyone, and I hope you enjoyed this Instructable and found it useful! I'm entering this into the Explore Science and Guerilla Design contests, so if you feel it is worthy, I would be honored if you vote for it!

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    58 Comments

    Nice little introduction to understand a very basic distillation process but there are few critical problems.

    Definitely do not use this to try to make anything drinkable in the way of drinking alcohol. You need the right skills and better equipment to keep from making a nasty and toxic brew of methanol, acetone, aldehydes, esters, etc. If it is the purity of any kind distillate, you need to use appropriate materials designed not to alter the end result such as borosilicate glass, copper, stainless steel, whatever is needed for the particular result. Accurate temperature control is critical as well.

    For an introduction to the complexities of distillation of spirits, check into Morris' 'The Joy of Home Distilling', or my favorite 'Moonshine" by Matthew Rowley. It's got a lot of interesting trivia and stories as well as practical information. Both discuss the legal side of this. Unlike homemade beer or wine, home distillation of spirits for human consumption is illegal in the USA.

    You have to start somewhere.

    Please don't run alcohol through this with your current condenser. Alc vapors will eat up that plastic and send it in solution along with whatever is conddensed(though given the length and diameter id also be concerned about the vapor speed).

    Also, glass that is not borosilicate should not be used. Even boro should be used sparingly.

    Check out the homedistiller forums for some cheap & easy plans

    2 replies

    Right - that's why I included the caveat about what choosing your tube material carefully along with the solvent/plastic compatibility chart. I agree about the borosilicate too.

    Please elaborate your concerns regarding the use of glas and the sparing use of borosilicate glas.

    Not trying to be rude just making a comment. This is and looks dangerous. Take my advice and don't make any distiller from PLASTIC!!!! Use a glass pyrex professional distiller or a column distiller since this is a lot safer and you probably with proper experience wouldn't burn your house down.

    And another reason to build this is for water emergencies where you are told to boil you water

    Alcohol is extremely flammable, and even explosive. This is undoubtedly one of the worst stills that I have ever seen. Alcohol also burns with a blue flame which can be difficult to impossible to see depending on ambient light. The distillation of alcohol is also illegal which can result in you home being confiscated.

    You have the right (depending on state law) to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year. This is a far better hobby than distillation. These days you can get yeasts from all sorts of regions, and make an enormous variety of wines including your own specialties. This is a lot more fun, and far better tasting.

    If you must make distilled alcohol, get rid of the flame. Read up on how to do this safely, how to make a still that can be reduced to innocuous parts when not in use, and how to improve your yield with a one pass still. Also important is the fermenting of the mash. Alcohol forms two azeotropes (constant boiling mixtures) with water. One at 95% water and 5% alcohol, and the other at 5% water and 95% alcohol (you can't distill alcohol over 190 proof without special methods). It is important to get the level of alcohol in the mash as high as possible, because you will lose 5% if the alcohol to the azeotrope.

    What ever you decide to do, get rid of that still.

    I am a chemist, and was an amateur oenologist for several decades. I know how to distill safely and efficiently, but never did outside the lab.

    13 replies

    Considering your attitude, and looking at the IED that you are so proud of, I believe that you are an outstanding candidate for this year's Darwin award.

    That's pretty rude and arrogant, and unnecessarily harsh under the circumstances. The guy did acknowledge the danger involved.

    So why don't you make recommendations and quote sources? I would be very interested in making my own 95% alcohol. I recently came into a whole bunch of premium quality lemons and am making a batch of limoncello. I was shocked that a 750ml bottle of Everclear 190 cost $22 plus tax! That's highway robbery. It must cost pennies to distill in quantity.

    First look into which permit you need, there is one for drinking spirits (distilled spirits permit) and one for making fuel (federal fuel alcohol permit). It is not legal without the permit regardless of how small the still is. I recommend taking a chemistry class at the local community college. This hobby is very dangerous and I recommend distilling outdoors if possible!

    Read before you answer. "decided it would be too costly and time-consuming to do this for the small quantities I would desire" As for chemistry, I had my fill of it after 2 semesters in college. I wouldn't need any course if I wanted to do this.

    Shockingly, I am not willing to help you perform an illegal activity, blow up your house, have it and all its contents confiscated, get badly burned, or help you into a prison sentence as well as a fine. There are a lot of "revenoors" looking for other illicit substances, but they are just as happy to get a bust for distilling without a permit. Even having a still not in use is illegal, and can cost you your home.

    You asked for references. You already got at least one, and I would suggest that you send them a photo of this device that you have, and see what they have to say about how safe it is. If you must, then there are obvious places for information. If you have to do this, at least try to do it safely.

    It is not cheap to make your own booze. There is a significant cost in sugar, other comestibles and of course energy. There is a lot of wasted alcohol with distilation. As I mentioned before, some 5% of the total volume of the distillate. You are lucky to get 15% in the fermentation process, with lots of loss along the way. Mash also stinks, and unless you live in a rural area, your neighbors will know that something is up, and they may very well turn you in. A lot of CO2 is produced in the fermentation process, and it entrains the odor, scattering it to the four winds. There are a lot of "revenoors" out looking, and sniffing for other things, but will take you in too.

    Untrained intelligence will not help. You need help from someone experienced. I had a pre-med student as a lab partner in organic chem. He got approval from the prof to distill in an open system, then decided that it would do better if he closed off the top. Fortunately I was out of the room when it blew. He was not so fortunate, though he was lucky in that he was wearing goggles.

    The hike in the price of sugar (it used to be grossly subsidized when Batista was in power) that followed the current government's takeover really killed the moonshine business. What little is left is for tradition and hobbies, not so much profit.

    I am not trying to spoil your fun. I have suggested an alternative (wine) which is far more efficient (you get to drink almost all the alcohol you produce,) and tastes a hell of a lot better. Can be indulged in legally, and you can get to openly meet people who you can learn from, and enjoy a hobby with. Families spend generations improving their wine making skills.

    Agreed 100% again... I worked in Iowa in the late 1970's... for an environmental company doing water testing in around Muscatine, Iowa.

    Every morning we went out to collect samples it was very evident that a local and legal distillery was making their product some where because we could smell the sour corn mash every morning like it was next to us and we went a far as 10 miles away to collect or water samples and you could still smell it...

    There is a major corn processing plant in Muscatine, and that is what you are smelling. Citizens just won a major court case to limit the smell, stop them from burning coal and go to NG and stop all the other pollution they've been creating for years ...

    The joke in neighboring cities goes like this

    Kiss her where it stinks, kiss her in Muscatine

    I'm sorry but you come of sounding like a jerk! There are plenty of legal reasons to want to distill your own alcohol, like biofuel. You could've offered real advice like taking a chemistry course at the local community college! You didn't even bother to ask if they had a federal feul alcohol permit before just assuming that they are illegal!

    That still was not for fuel, and would not be take as such by ATF agents. The size and shape made that obvious. The statements of the OP did as well. People sometimes do strange and dangerous things. That still could very possibly win the operator a Darwin award.

    Agreed to do any Legal distilling, you need a ton of legal paper work or the AFT will come after you.. Making wine or beer is Not distilling it is fermentation... a totally different bio chemical process that is legal to do ... Distilling is a chemical process, that IS illegal in the eyes of the law, solely to make low proof alcohol into high proof alcohol.....!!! You may not of wanted a lecture... but this is something I and others decided to comment about.... IF You want to head the warnings then Great.... But it sounds like you do not want to head the warnings which is YOUR choice... If you decide to do distilling then good luck if and or when your home, or shed blows up and if or when the AFT agents show up on your door step....

    I meant to say Heed not head... The advice was meant to be a friendly warning... If you decide not to, that is fine as well....