How to Set Up Distillation Apparatus

You can make it using standard chemistry equipment

Preparation of diethyl ether, wood engraving, published in 1880
ZU_09 / Getty Images

Distillation is a method of separating or purifying liquids based on their different boiling points. If you don't wish to construct the distillation apparatus and can afford it, you can buy a complete setup. That can get expensive, so here is an example of how to set up distillation apparatus from standard chemistry equipment. You can customize your setup based on what you have on hand.

Equipment

  • 2 Erlenmeyer flasks
  • 1 1-hole stopper that fits a flask
  • 1 2-hole stopper that fits a flask
  • Plastic tubing
  • Short lengths of glass tubing
  • Cold water bath (any container that can hold both cold water and a flask)
  • Boiling chip (a substance that makes liquids boil more calmly and evenly)
  • Hot plate
  • Thermometer (optional)

If you have them, two 2-hole stoppers are ideal because then you can insert a thermometer into the heated flask. This is helpful and sometimes necessary to control the temperature of the distillation. Also, if the temperature of the distillation suddenly changes, this usually indicates that one of the chemicals in your mixture has been removed.

Setting Up the Apparatus

Here's how to assemble the equipment:

  1. The liquid you are going to distill goes into one beaker, along with a boiling chip.
  2. This beaker sits on the hot plate, since this is the liquid you will be heating.
  3. Insert a short length of glass tubing into a stopper. Connect it to one end of a length of plastic tubing.
  4. Connect the other end of the plastic tubing to a short length of glass tubing inserted into the other stopper. The distilled fluid will pass through this tubing to the second flask.
  5. Insert a short length of glass tubing into the stopper for the second flask. It is open to the air to prevent pressure buildup inside the apparatus.
  6. Place the receiving flask in a large container filled with ice water. Vapor passing through the plastic tubing will condense immediately when it comes into contact with the cooler air of the receiving flask.
  7. It's a good idea to clamp down both flasks to help keep them from tipping over by accident.

Projects

A simple home water distilling pot
A simple home water distilling pot. dmitriymoroz / Getty Images

Now that you have a distillation apparatus, here are some easy projects to try so you can become familiar with the equipment:

  • Distill Water: Got salt water or impure water? Remove particulates and many impurities using distillation. Bottled water is often purified this way.
  • Distill Ethanol: Alcohol distillation is another common application. This is trickier than water distillation because different types of alcohol have close boiling points, so separating them requires close control of temperature.
  • Purify Alcohol: You can use distillation to purify impure alcohol. This is a common method used to obtain pure alcohol from denatured alcohol.