Essential oils represent a multi-million-dollar business in the U.S. alone. We use essential oils for everything from improving our health to making natural pesticides that do not harm the environment. But before we can use essential oils for our own benefit, we have to extract them from the plant material in which they are found. There are several processes for doing this, including steam distillation.
When steam distillation is the chosen extraction strategy, steam acts as a botanical oil extractor of sorts. Distillers use larger stainless-steel tanks, known as stills, to hold plant material that is then injected with steam. While the process is not complicated from a chemistry standpoint, it does require considerable knowledge and the right techniques. It also requires the right equipment, which is where we come in.
More About Essential Oils
Essential oils are concentrated liquids containing volatile chemical compounds. The word ‘volatile’ simply means that these chemical compounds are easily evaporated. That’s why steam extraction works so well. It may be why steam extraction is one of the most common forms of distilling essential oils.
At any rate, essential oils are found in plant life. They are known as ‘essential’ due to their aromatic nature. The aroma is the essence of the oil; thus, an extract is known as an essential oil. Some of the more common essential oils are lemongrass, peppermint, lavender, and eucalyptus. You can buy them just about everywhere.
How Oils Are Distilled
Essential oil steam distillation starts with the still. We recommend stills be stainless steel tanks, but we know that other materials are used. At any rate, the still is filled with plant material then injected with steam. The steam is injected under pressure through a valve.
Due to its inherent high temperature, the steam immediately goes to work on the plant material. That material heats up to the desired temperature, subsequently releasing its volatile compounds as a vapor. The process continues until the distiller is satisfied that all of the desired compounds have been extracted.
As for the vapor, it travels upwards until reaching a condenser that cools the vapor back down. Separate tubes and flasks collect the different compounds as well as the water produced by condensation. Because water and oil do not mix, what ends up in the system’s collector can be easily separated via siphoning. The essential oil is siphoned off and the water is recycled.
However, there are some types of essential oils that actually sink to the bottom of the separator. This is because they are heavier than water. Regardless, they are easily collected before water goes for recycling.
An Art and a Science
Though we are not experts in essential oil distillation, we do know enough to say that the process is both an art and a science. Steam distillation produces some fantastic essential oil products for use in a variety of industries ranging from healthcare to agriculture and health and beauty.
The science portion involves choosing the right plants. It involves knowing how much steam to apply and at what temperature. It involves understanding how liquids – especially volatile liquid compounds – react to distillation. Needless to say, getting it right requires not only a lot of knowledge, but also the best possible equipment.
In terms of equipment, the distiller’s stainless-steel tanks should be purpose-built tanks designed for the job. If you would like to know more about our tanks or steam distillation in general, feel free to contact us. Our entire team is here to help make sure you get the exact equipment you need to do what you do.