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Purifying Compounds by Recrystallization

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Recrystallization is a purification technique for solid compounds.

To perform recrystallization, an impure solid compound is mixed with hot solvent to form a saturated solution. As this solution cools, the solubility of the compound decreases, and pure crystals grow from solution.

Recrystallization is often used as a final step after other separation methods such as extraction, or column chromatography. Recrystallization may also be used to separate two compounds with very different solubility properties. This video will illustrate solvent selection for recrystallization, purification of an organic compound from solution, and will introduce a few applications in chemistry.

Crystallization begins with nucleation. Solute molecules come together to form a stable small crystal, which is followed by crystal growth. Nucleation occurs faster on nucleation sites such as seed crystals, scratches, or solid impurities than spontaneously in solution. Agitation may also encourage rapid nucleation. However, rapid growth can lead to incorporation of impurities if not grown in optimal conditions.

The solubility of a compound tends to increase with temperature, and is highly dependent on the choice of solvent. The greater the difference in solubility at high and low temperature, the more likely it is for the solute to come out of the solution as it cools, and form crystals.

The solvent chosen should have a boiling point of at least 40 °C so there is a significant temperature difference between boiling and room temperature. The solvent's boiling point must also be below the melting point of the solute to enable crystallization. Rapid cooling of the solution induces the formation of many nucleation sites, thus favors the growth of many small crystals. However, slow cooling induces the formation of fewer nucleation sites, and favors larger and purer crystals. Thus, slow cooling is preferred.

Additionally, a solvent can be selected to minimize impurities. If a solution impurity is more soluble than the solute itself, it can be washed off of the fully formed crystals with cold solvent. However, if an impurity is less soluble, it will crystalize first, and can then be filtered out of the heated solution, prior to recrystallization of the solute.

If no single solvent has the necessary properties, a mixture of solvents can be used. For a solvent pair, the first solvent should readily dissolve the solid. The second solvent must have a lower solubility for the solute and be miscible with the first solvent. Common solvent pairs include ethyl acetate and hexane, toluene and hexane, methanol and dichloromethane, and water and ethanol.

Now that you understand the principles of recrystallization, let's go through a procedure for purification of an organic compound by recrystallization.

To begin this procedure, place 50 mg of the sample in a glass test tube.

Add 0.5 mL of room temperature solvent. If the compound dissolves completely, the solubility in the cold solvent is too high to be used for recrystallization. Otherwise, heat the mixture in the test tube to boiling.

If the compound does not dissolve completely in the boiling solvent, heat another portion of solvent to boiling. Add the boiling solvent dropwise to the test tube until the solid dissolves completely or until the test tube contains 3 mL of solvent. If the solid still does not dissolve, then its solubility in this solvent is too low.

Confirm that impurities are either insoluble in the hot solvent so they can be filtered out after dissolution or soluble in the cold solvent so they remain in solution after recrystallization is complete. If a solvent meets all criteria, it is suitable for recrystallization.

To start recrystallization, heat the solvent to boiling on a hot plate in an Erlenmeyer flask with a stir bar. Place the compound to be recrystallized in another Erlenmeyer flask at room temperature.

Next, add a small portion of hot solvent to the compound. Swirl the mixture in the flask and then place it on the hot plate as well. Repeat this process until the sample has completely dissolved or until addition of solvent causes no further dissolution.

Add a 10% excess of hot solvent to the solution to account for evaporation. Place filter paper in a Büchner funnel setup. Filter the solution to remove insoluble impurities. If crystals form during filtration, dissolve them with drops of hot solvent.

Cool the solution on the benchtop. Cover the flask to prevent solvent loss to evaporation and to keep particulates out of the solution.

Leave the flask undisturbed until it has cooled to room temperature. Agitation during cooling may cause rapid crystallization, yielding less pure crystals. If no crystal formation is evident upon cooling, induce crystallization by gently scratching the inside walls of the flask with a glass rod or adding a small seed crystal of the compound being recrystallized.

If crystal formation cannot be induced, reheat the solution to boil off some of the solvent, and then cool the solvent to room temperature once more.

Once crystals have formed, prepare an ice bath. Keeping the solution covered, cool the solution in the ice bath until crystallization appears to be complete.

Clamp a filtration flask to a ring stand and connect the flask to a vacuum line. Set a Büchner funnel and adapter in the mouth of the flask.

Pour the mixture of solution and crystals into the funnel and begin vacuum filtration. Rinse any crystals remaining in the flask into the funnel with cold solvent. Wash the crystals on the funnel with cold solvent to remove soluble impurities.

Continue drawing air through the funnel to dry the crystals and then turn off the vacuum pump. If necessary, the crystals may be allowed to stand at room temperature to air dry or placed in a desiccator before storing the crystallized solid.

The yellow impurities present in the crude compound have been removed, yielding an off-white solid. Based on the identity of the compound and the impurities, the purity of the crystals can be verified by NMR spectroscopy, melting point measurements, or visual inspection.

Purification by recrystallization is an important tool for chemical synthesis and analysis.

X-ray crystallography is a powerful characterization technique that identifies the three-dimensional atomic structure of a molecule. This requires a pure single crystal, which is obtained by recrystallization. Some classes of molecules such as proteins are difficult to crystallize, but their structures are extremely important for understanding their chemical functions. With careful selection of recrystallization conditions, even these classes of molecules can be analyzed by X-ray crystallography. To learn more about this process, see this collection's video on growing crystals for crystallography.

Impure reactants can cause unwanted side reactions. Purifying reactants by recrystallization improves product purity and yield. Once a solid product has been isolated and washed, reaction yield can also be increased by removing volatiles from the filtrate and recrystallizing the product from the resulting solid. Antifreeze proteins, or AFPs, are expressed in many organisms that live in icy environments. AFPs hinder internal ice growth by binding to ice planes, inhibiting recrystallization into larger ice crystals. Different AFPs bind to different types of ice crystal planes. Investigating AFP binding mechanisms involves adsorbing them onto single ice crystals. Proper growth of a single ice crystal is essential for clear and informative results. These proteins have applications from the engineering of cold-resistant crops to cryosurgery.

You've just watched JoVE's introduction to purifying compounds by recrystallization. You should now be familiar with the principles of the technique, a purification procedure, and some applications of recrystallization in chemistry.

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