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[ah lem'bik] a piece of equipment essential to the distillation process

Distillation is one of the oldest chemical processes known, having been developed by the Alexandrian alchemists between 100 and 900 A.D. The process was refined by the Persians, who were particularly noted for their use of distillation to produce essential oils and perfume. By the Middle Ages it was in use for the preparation of strong acids and for making alcoholic drinks. In the late nineteenth century, the process was developed on an industrial scale for the distillation of petroleum and is still an important technique in the chemical industry.

artist's rendering of a modern-day alembic

third-century illustration of alchemical distillation apparatusIslamic alembicThe alembic itself has remained virtually unchanged to this day. The liquid to be distilled is heated in a lower vessel and the resulting vapor condenses on the inside of the dome shape of the upper vessel, the alembic. The condensed vapor runs down into the internal gutter and out through the spout into a collecting vessel.

At left is a third-century A.D. illustration of alchemical distillation apparatus showing two alembics. At right is a glass alembic that dates from tenth- to twelfth-century Islam; it is on display at the National Museum of Science and Industry in London, England.

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This page was last updated on 09/12/2015.

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