Fractional Distillation

Simple distillation is effective only when separating a volatile liquid from a nonvolatile substance or when separating two liquids that differ in boiling point by 50 degrees or more. If the liquids comprising the mixture that is being distilled have boiling points that are closer than 50 degrees to one another, the distillate collected will be richer in the more volatile compound but not to the degree necessary for complete separation of the individual compounds.

The basic idea behind fractional distillation is the same as simple distillation only the process is repeated many times. If simple distillation was performed on a mixture of liquids with similar volatilities, the resulting distillate would be more concentrated in the more volatile compound than the original mixture but it would still contain a significant amount of the higher boiling compound. If the distillate of this simple distillation was distilled again, the resulting distillate would again be even more concentrated in the lower boiling compound, but still a portion of the distillate would be the higher boiling compound. If this process is repeated several times, a fairly pure distillate will eventually result. This, however, would take a very long time. In fractional distillation, the vapors formed from the boiling mixture rise into the fractionating column where they condense on the column's packing. This condensation is tantamount to a single run of simple distillation; the condensate is more concentrated in the lower boiling compound than the mixture in the distillation flask. As vapors continue to rise through the column, the liquid that has condensed will revaporize. Each time this occurs the resulting vapors are more and more concentrated in the more volatile substances. The length of the fractionating column and the material it is packed with impact the number of times the vapors will recondense before passing into the condenser; the number of times the column will support this is referred to as the number of theoretical plates of the column.

Since the procedures of simple distillation are so similar to those involved in fractional distillation, the apparatus that are used in the procedures are also very similar. The only difference between the equipment used in fractional distillation and that used in simple distillation is that with fractional distillation, a packed fractionating column is attached to the top of the distillation flask and beneath the condenser. This provides the surface area on which rising vapors condense, and subsequently revaporize.

The fractionating column is used to supply a temperature gradient over which the distillation can occur. In an ideal situation, the temperature in the distillation flask would be equal to the boiling point of the mixture of liquids and the temperature at the top of the fractionating column would be equal to the boiling point of the lower boiling compound; all of the lower boiling compound would be distilled away before any of the higher boiling compound. In reality, fractions of the distillate must be collected because as the distillation proceeds, the concentration of the higher boiling compound in the distillate being collected steadily increases. Fractions of the distillate, which are collected over a small temperature range, will be essentially purified; several fractions should be collected as the temperature changes and these portions of the distillate should be distilled again to amplify the purification that has already occurred.

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Copyright 2003 by Claude Yoder and Phyllis Leber