How to Build a Fractional Distillation Column

Updated April 17, 2017

A fractional distillation column allows for a more efficient separation of various components of a mixture of liquids. The practice of distillation is integral in the production of liquor but also is an essential technique in the manufacturing of chemicals. Simple distillation involves the evaporation of a volatile liquid from a boiling reservoir. As the temperature reaches the boiling point of one of the liquids in the mixture, its vapours rise up the column and condenses back into the liquid phase. The benefit of the fractional distillation column is the ability to perform multiple distillations on the vapours as they rise through the filled column. The increased surface area provided by the column filling absorbs some of the heat as the vapour condenses and then vaporises again as more vapours flow up the column. The condensing and vaporising process may occur many times before the vapours exit the column and flow down the condenser to condense one final time and exit the distillation unit.

Plug the bottom of your distillation column with a small amount of steel wool. This will keep the column fill material from falling out of the bottom of the column and into the pot.

Fill the internal volume of the distillation column with packing material to provide greater surface area. Use material that is inert to the compounds in the distillation pot. The greater surface area of the fill material creates a column that generates multiple distillations as the vapours travel up the column to the head of the column. Common fill materials for the column are pieces of copper mesh, steel wool or glass beads. Load the chosen material until it fills at least 75 per cent of the column.

Place a piece of copper mesh at the top of the fill material and then pack the top with another small amount of steel wool. Make sure the plug at the top will not allow any fill material to fall out of the column.

Things You'll Need

  • Distillation column
  • Steel wool
  • Copper mesh
  • Glass balls
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About the Author

Sean Lancaster has been a freelance writer since 2007. He has written for Writers Research Group, Alexis Writing and the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce. Lancaster holds a Doctor of Philosophy in chemistry from the University of Washington.