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Fractional Distillation

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Distillation is one of the most commonly used techniques for purifying liquids in laboratory settings and accounts for up to 95% of all industrial separation processes.

This method separates and purifies liquids based on their volatility, or the tendency for its molecules to escape from the liquid phase as gaseous vapor. To distill a solution, it is heated until the most volatile compounds begin to vaporize. The resultant vapors are then condensed into a purified liquid, known as the distillate, and collected.

The most common distillation methods are: simple distillation, which employs just one vaporization-condensation cycle, and fractional distillation, which employs multiple vaporization-condensation cycles.

This video will review the principles behind simple and fractional distillation, typical laboratory distillation apparatuses, and demonstrate an example fractional distillation procedure. Finally, applications of distillation will be covered.

When a liquid is heated, the kinetic energy of its molecules increases, causing some of the molecules to transition from the liquid into the gaseous state. This process, called vaporization, increases the vapor pressure above the liquid relative to the atmospheric pressure. The temperature at which the liquid's vapor pressure equals the surrounding environment's air pressure, at which point 'bubbles' of vapor form within the liquid, is known as its boiling point. Above this temperature, the liquid will completely vaporize into a gas.

In a simple distillation, a mixture is heated in a flask, and the resultant vapors pass into a condensing column where they are cooled and condensed into a liquid called the distillate. This method uses just one vaporization-condensation cycle, and generates pure distillates from both mixtures of liquids and solids, and mixtures of liquids with vastly different boiling points.

Mixtures of liquids with boiling points differing by less than about 30 °C cannot be completely separated using simple distillation. The distillate composition, however, can be predicted using a 'boiling point-diagram', which plots temperature as a function of liquid and vapor composition. For example, an equal mixture of cyclohexane and toluene has a boiling point of 90 °C, resulting in a vapor composition of 80% cyclohexane and 20% toluene, and yielding an 80% pure distillate.

The boiling point diagram predicts that a second vaporization-condensation cycle, achieved by boiling the 80:20 distillate at roughly 84 °C, results in a 95% purity. Each consecutive cycle, referred to as a 'theoretical plate,' increases the purity of the, where 3 theoretical plates result in a 99% purity. Although it is possible to generate this by chaining multiple 'simple distillation' apparatuses together, 'fractional distillation' achieves this more efficiently.

The setup adds a "fractionating column," between the starting flask and the condenser. This column is typically filled with glass beads or metal wool, providing a large surface area for the liquid to condense and re-evaporate onto numerous times. This generates a large number of theoretical plates.

As vapors rise through the column, a ring of condensate forms and slowly moves up as the vapors separate across the theoretical plates. When the vapor reaches the top of the column, the molecules with the highest volatility pass into the condenser where they are collected as a high purity distillate.

Now that we've reviewed the basic principles behind distillation, let's walk through an example for a cyclohexane: toluene mixture.

Begin by assembling the components of the fractional distillation apparatus in the fume hood. Place the heating mantle and stir plate on top of the laboratory jack at the foot of the retort stand and raise everything 8 in. with the jack.

Attach three clamps to the retort stand. Position the round-bottom flask so that it fits snuggly into the heating mantle and secure it to the retort stand.

Add a magnetic stir bar to the flask, place the fractionating column on top, and secure it.

Fit the "Y" adaptor into the top of the fractionating column. Secure it to the retort stand with a clamp and then secure the ground-glass joint between it and the fractionating column with a keck clamp.

Fit the condenser into the downward sloping arm of the "Y" adaptor and secure the joint. For added stability, clamp the condensing column to a second retort stand.

Connect a tube from the water source to the bottom connection on the condenser. Connect a second tube from the upper condenser connection to the water return port.

Secure the tubing, turn on the water, and verify that water flows through the condenser.

Add a collection adaptor to the condensing column. Secure this joint with a keck clip and place a graduated cylinder beneath it.

Before installing the thermometer, lower the flask. Use a funnel to fill less than half of the flask with the starting mixture.

Raise the flask, fitting it back into the fractionating column, and securing it. Secure this final ground-glass joint with a keck clamp and then replace and reposition the jack and heating mantle.

Finally, fit the thermometer into an adaptor and place it into the remaining port of the "Y" adaptor. Adjust the height of the thermometer bulb, situating it just below the side arm of the "Y" adaptor to ensure accurate vapor temperature readings.

Turn on the hot plate, gradually increasing the temperature and heating the mantle until the starting mixture begins to boil. Adjust the hotplate temperature as needed to ensure that the mixture continues to boil, maintaining a constant vapor temperature for the first 2 min of the distillation.

Watch as the condensation ring forms, and rises, to the top of the column. When the first drops of liquid condense and drip into the graduated cylinder, record the vapor temperature. Keep the vapor temperature constant by adjusting the hotplate setting until drops fall from the condenser at a rate of 1–2 per second.

For each 2 mL increment of distillate volume, record the vapor temperature. After 4 mL has been collected, record the vapor temperature and then quickly replace the partially filled graduated cylinder with an empty one. Save the 4 mL sample in an individually labeled vial for future analysis.

Continue recording vapor temperatures at 2 mL intervals, and saving distillate samples at 4 mL intervals, until the vapor temperature drops significantly and the mixture stops boiling.

Turn off the hotplate and the water running to the condenser. The distillation of cyclohexane is now complete and the 4 mL distillate samples can be prepared for NMR analysis.

Evaluate the purity of both the starting mixture and the distillate using NMR spectroscopy, a common technique for assessing the composition and purity of mixtures. In our example, the NMR spectrum of the initial mixture shows the characteristic peaks associated with both toluene and cyclohexane. The NMR spectra of the first distillate we collected after fractional distillation, however, was pure cyclohexane.

Distillation has applications in a broad range of fields, from large-scale petroleum refineries to small-scale whiskey stills.

To generate distilled spirits such as vodka or whiskey, a mixture of grain fermentation products known as 'wash,' which is 10–12 % alcohol by volume, is boiled in a "still" and the resultant vapors separated by either simple or fractional distillation, depending on the still's design and the type of spirit. This allows 'the heart', ethanol, to be separated from 'the tails', like propanol and water, which have higher boiling points. Additionally, distillation allows for the elimination of 'the heads' like methanol, which famously caused blindness in poorly made moonshine. The distillate may be around 50 % alcohol if produced from simple distillation, or as much as 95 % if fractionally distilled.

Gas chromatography uses thousands, if not millions, of theoretical plates to separate volatile mixtures using fractional distillation on a micro-scale. Here, a mixture of volatiles used to stimulate the olfactory nerves of bees were injected into the gas chromatograph, which was used to separate and identify the compounds based on the amount of time they took to pass through the chromatography column.

Trace explosive vapors of TNT and RDX were selectively separated from a sample headspace using the principles of distillation. These samples were collected in temperature desorption tubes and introduced into a temperature desorption stage, where they were heated them to between 350 and 900 degrees to increase their volatility. Finally, they were selectively condensed using a cryotrap and introduced into a gas chromatograph for analysis.

You've just watched JoVE's introduction to fractional distillation. You should now understand the basic principles behind distillation, the apparatuses for simple and fractional distillation, and a basic fractional distillation procedure.

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