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Distillation Of Water From an Aqueous Solution Using A Disposable Apparatus.

Distillation Of Water From an Aqueous Solution Using A Disposable Apparatus.

Introduction: (Initial Observation)

Distillation is a commonly used method of purification and separation of liquids. Many areas in the world have no access to drinking water, so they make their drinking water by distilling salt water from oceans. As time passes, water get more polluted and access to drinking water becomes more difficult. Bottling companies are vigorously purchasing water resources around the world and soon the only drinking water that we have access to will be expensive bottled water or soda drinks.

Distillation is also used in petrochemical and chemical industries as a means of extracting certain chemicals from mixtures. Natural oil for example is a mixture of many different hydrocarbons. Refineries use distillation to separate them to individual products.

Because of the importance of distillation, this project is an attempt to experiment distillation with a disposable apparatus that is easily available to everyone. Using a disposable apparatus is also a valuable experience for scientists because a successful scientist must be able to utilize everything available to him/her in conducting research in an efficient manner.


This project guide contains information that you need in order to start your project. If you have any questions or need more support about this project, click on the “Ask Question” button on the top of this page to send me a message.

If you are new in doing science project, click on “How to Start” in the main page. There you will find helpful links that describe different types of science projects, scientific method, variables, hypothesis, graph, abstract and all other general basics that you need to know.

Project advisor

Information Gathering:

Find out about distillation and its applications. Read books, magazines, or ask professionals who might know in order to learn about the structure of different distillation apparatuses. Keep track of where you got your information from.

Following are samples of information that you may find.

Although extracting a pure substance from a mixture is done by chemists in chemical factories, often physical properties of material are the key in such separations. Differences in physical properties such as boiling point, melting point, density and solubility can help us separate many substances from a mixture.

Distillation means vaporization of a liquid and subsequent condensation of the resultant gas back to liquid form. It is used to separate liquids from nonvolatile solids or solutes (e.g., alcoholic beverages from the fermented materials, water from other components of seawater) or to separate two or more liquids with different boiling points (e.g., gasoline, kerosene, and lubricating oil from crude oil). Many variations have been devised for industrial applications. An important one is fractional distillation, in which liquids with similar boiling points are repeatedly vaporized and condensed as they rise through an insulated vertical column. The most volatile of the liquids emerges first, nearly pure, from the top of the column, followed in turn by less and less volatile fractions of the original mixture. This method separates the mixture’s components far better than simple distillation does.

Although many people have a fair idea what “distillation” means, the important aspects that seem to be missed from the manufacturing point of view are that:

distillation is the most common separation technique

it consumes enormous amounts of energy, both in terms of cooling and heating requirements

Distillation is probably the most common technique for purifying liquids. In simple distillation, a liquid is boiled and the vapors work through the apparatus until they reach the condenser where they are cooled and re-liquified.

The process is relatively simple:
a) the water based liquid is heated to the boiling point and thus vaporizes
b) (becomes steam), while other substances remain in solid state, in boiler. Steam is then directed into a cooler where it cools down and returns to liquid
c) the end result is usually a purified liquid.

We can purchase a complete set of a distillation apparatus from a local laboratory supplier or we can setup a simple distillation apparatus as follows:

  1. Use a glass test tube or flask as a boiling unit.
  2. Use a glass tube as a condenser.
  3. Connect the boiling unit to the condenser via a rubber or plastic joint. It can be an elbow tube or any other rubber or plastic tube.
  4. Use stands and clamps or any other safe method to secure your setup like the following figure.

Heat source can be an alcohol burner, but you can also use Chafing Dish Fuel cans (sold in supermarkets and used to keep the food warm).

Condensed vapors can be collected in a beaker or glass cup.

Question/ Purpose:

What do you want to find out? Write a statement that describes what you want to do. Use your observations and questions to write the statement.

The purpose of this project is to design and construct a distillation device using readily available materials and use it to separate a colorless liquid from a common colored solution by distillation.

Question: Following are sample questions for this project.

  1. What is the rate of fuel consumption in your home made water distillatory?
    You want to know how much fuel is needed to produce one liter distilled water?
  2. How does the rate of production change in a home made distillatory system?
    You want to know if the production of distilled water start as soon as you start the heat and if it remains at a constant rate.

Note: You may use tea or soda as a colored solution.

Identify Variables:

When you think you know what variables may be involved, think about ways to change one at a time. If you change more than one at a time, you will not know what variable is causing your observation. Sometimes variables are linked and work together to cause something. At first, try to choose variables that you think act independently of each other.

For Question 1:

  • Independent variable is the amount of consumed fuel.
  • Dependent variable is the amount of produced distilled water.
  • Constants are: Distillation time, the type of fuel and the heat source.
  • Controlled variables are: Weather temperature, water temperature prior to distillation.

For Question 2:

  • Independent variable is time
  • Dependent variable is the rate of distillation (how many milliliters per minute)
  • Constants are: Distillation time, the type of fuel and the heat source.
  • Controlled variables are: Weather temperature, water temperature prior to distillation.


Based on your gathered information, make an educated guess about what types of things affect the system you are working with. Identifying variables is necessary before you can make a hypothesis.

A simple distiller can be constructed using a soda can as a boiling vessel and aluminum foil as condenser.

I estimate the rate of fuel consumption to be about 1% to 5% in a home made distillation device.

Experiment Design:

Design an experiment to test each hypothesis. Make a step-by-step list of what you will do to answer each question. This list is called an experimental procedure. For an experiment to give answers you can trust, it must have a “control.” A control is an additional experimental trial or run. It is a separate experiment, done exactly like the others. The only difference is that no experimental variables are changed. A control is a neutral “reference point” for comparison that allows you to see what changing a variable does by comparing it to not changing anything. Dependable controls are sometimes very hard to develop. They can be the hardest part of a project. Without a control you cannot be sure that changing the variable causes your observations. A series of experiments that includes a control is called a “controlled experiment.”

Experiment 1: (For question 1)

Introduction: This experiment is particularly appropriate for middle school science classes or for a general or first-year course where scientific glassware is unavailable. A simple distillation is performed using a soda can and aluminum foil (or copper pipe) in place of traditional glassware. The experiment works sufficiently well to enable students to obtain a colorless liquid from a colored solution. Not only is the equipment inexpensive and readily available, but the entire apparatus is disposable.


  1. Rinse the soda can clean.
  2. Add the solution to be distilled until the can is l/3 to l/2 full. Boiling chips may be added if available, but are by no means necessary.
  3. Mount the soda can above the burner on a wire screen supported by an iron ring (attached to the ring stand). Mount the second iron ring around and near the top of the can to prevent it from tipping over.
  4. Insert the smaller glass jar into the larger one and surround liberally with an Ice-rich slush bath.
  5. Prepare an air-cooled condenser made of aluminum foil. This is best done by wrapping the foil lengthwise around a dowel rod or broom handle, taking care to seal the seam that runs the length of the foil tube by making several folds of foil neatly pressed back on itself. (Failure to do this will result in poor efficiency during distillation.)
  6. Fit one end of the condenser into the opening at the top of the soda can. Gently bend the other end down and insert it into the smaller glass jar which serves as a receiver flask for the distillation.
  7. Heat the soda can and its contents with a steady flame. As the solution boils, some vapor can be seen escaping from around the mouth of the can. Still, enough vapor makes its way through the air-cooled condenser so that condensation soon occurs in the chilled receiver flask.
  8. After pouring the mother liquor down the drain, the entire distillation apparatus may be disposed of with the solid waste. If desired, the jars may be saved for re-use. The aluminum cans could be recycled.

If alcohol burners are used, they should be filled when cold, only by the teacher. Adding common salt to the burner fuel makes it easier for students to see the flame and thus avoid possible burns. The aluminum foil condenser becomes quite hot during the distillation. Care should be taken to avoid touching it during collection of the distillate. Goggles must be worn throughout the experiment.

This is a sample setup similar to what is suggested in the above experiment. As you see, you can modify the design based on the material that may be available to you. In this experiment we used aluminum foil to build a condenser tube.


Weigh the alcohol burner before and after the experiment so you can calculate the amount of alcohol used in this process.

Weigh the can before and after the experiment so you can calculate the amount of distilled water.


Divide the amount of fuel used in process of distillation by the amount of distilled water to determine the rate of fuel consumption.

Additional Samples and Pictures:

Here we found a copper tube and matching copper elbow and used it as a condenser.

The problem was that it took a few minutes for milk to boil.

Adult supervision and safe experiment area is required in addition to safety goggles.

In this experiment we are using an electric heater instead of an alcohol burner.

The problem was that so much heat was being wasted because a soda can is small and the heater element is big.

Adult supervision and safe experiment area is required in addition to safety goggles.

Hear we used a propane torch as a heat source. Wire screen was necessary hear to distribute the flame and heat.

Adult supervision and safe experiment area is required in addition to safety goggles.

Repeat your tests and enter your data in a data table.  For each experiment write how much fuel did you use and how much distilled water did you collect. Make sure to limit your distillation time and keep it constant. For example you may let the distillation continue for 15 minutes or 30 minutes. Whatever time length you choose, keep it the same every time you try the distillation process. The data table may look like this:

Amount of fuel Cost of fuel (optional) Amount of distillate
in grams in dollars or cents in milliliters (cubic centimeters)

Use the above data table to calculate the average cost of producing distilled water with your home made apparatus.

Make a graph:

You can use a bar graph to visually present your results. Make a vertical bar for each trial. The height of bar will be the amount of distilled water you get on that trial.


If alcohol burners are used, they should be filled when cold, only by an adult. Adding common salt to the wick of the burner makes it easier for you to see the flame and thus avoid possible burns. All components become quite hot during the distillation. Care should be taken to avoid touching it during collection of the distillate. Goggles must be worn throughout the experiment.

Experiment 2: (For question 2)

How does the rate of production change in a home made distillatory system?
In this experiment we measure and record the production of distilled water in each minute starting the moment we start the heat.


Prepare your distillation system and allow the distillate enter a plastic cup. On the top of every minute replace the cup with an empty cup. Number the cups you remove as soon as you remove them. Use a pipette or a graduated cylinder to measure the amount of distilled water in each cup. Record your results in a data table like this:


Minute Amount of distillate in milliliters



Does your distillatory apparatus have a constant rate of production? If not how does it change? Can you explain the changes?

Materials and Equipment:

crushed ice solution to be distilled–cranberry or apple juice, coke, orange soda, or colored aqueous solution
empty soda can–Pepsi, 7-Up, etc.
4 to 8-oz clear glass jar with narrow opening at top larger jar or other container to hold jar above 4-In x 12-in piece of aluminum foil
Bunsen or alcohol burner
ring stand
iron rings wire screen
Plastic cups (Small)
Pipettes or small graduated cylinders

  1. A wide variety of common household solutions can be distilled in this experiment, including tea, fruit juices and strongly colored sodas.
  2. Highly colored inorganic chemical solutions (KMnO4, K2Cr2O7, CuSO4, etc.) should be avoided because they will react with the aluminum in the cans.

Results of Experiment (Observation):

Experiments are often done in series. A series of experiments can be done by changing one variable a different amount each time. A series of experiments is made up of separate experimental “runs.” During each run you make a measurement of how much the variable affected the system under study. For each run, a different amount of change in the variable is used. This produces a different amount of response in the system. You measure this response, or record data, in a table for this purpose. This is considered “raw data” since it has not been processed or interpreted yet. When raw data gets processed mathematically, for example, it becomes results.

In your experiment results, note the principles which allow distillation to be used as an effective purification tool (i.e., contaminants must be non-volatile). Be sure to compare the color of the starting material with that of the distillate.

Is your distilled water colorless?

Is your distilled water free of odors?

Is it free of salts?


Divide the amount of fuel used in process of distillation by the amount of distilled water to determine the rate of fuel consumption.

Summary of Results:

Summarize what happened. This can be in the form of a table of processed numerical data, or graphs. It could also be a written statement of what occurred during experiments.

It is from calculations using recorded data that tables and graphs are made. Studying tables and graphs, we can see trends that tell us how different variables cause our observations. Based on these trends, we can draw conclusions about the system under study. These conclusions help us confirm or deny our original hypothesis. Often, mathematical equations can be made from graphs. These equations allow us to predict how a change will affect the system without the need to do additional experiments. Advanced levels of experimental science rely heavily on graphical and mathematical analysis of data. At this level, science becomes even more interesting and powerful.


Using the trends in your experimental data and your experimental observations, try to answer your original questions. Is your hypothesis correct? Now is the time to pull together what happened, and assess the experiments you did.

Related Questions & Answers:

What you have learned may allow you to answer other questions. Many questions are related. Several new questions may have occurred to you while doing experiments. You may now be able to understand or verify things that you discovered when gathering information for the project. Questions lead to more questions, which lead to additional hypothesis that need to be tested.

What would happen if the contaminants in water were volatile such as alcohol or acetic acid?

Possible Errors:

If you did not observe anything different than what happened with your control, the variable you changed may not affect the system you are investigating. If you did not observe a consistent, reproducible trend in your series of experimental runs there may be experimental errors affecting your results. The first thing to check is how you are making your measurements. Is the measurement method questionable or unreliable? Maybe you are reading a scale incorrectly, or maybe the measuring instrument is working erratically.

If you determine that experimental errors are influencing your results, carefully rethink the design of your experiments. Review each step of the procedure to find sources of potential errors. If possible, have a scientist review the procedure with you. Sometimes the designer of an experiment can miss the obvious.

For better sealing of the condenser tube, use one of the following procedures. The aluminum foil at the mouth of the can may be sealed with masking tape. Alternately, the condenser tube can be fitted carefully into corks or stoppers at the mouths of the can and the collection bottle; however, the system should not be completely sealed.

It is possible that a large portion of heat is being wasted. By using insulating material, you may probably reduce the rate of fuel consumption.


Holtzclaw, H.F., Jr., Robinson, W.R., and Nebergall, W.R., College Chemistry with Qualitative Analysis, D.C. Heath and Company, Lexington, MA, 1984, p. 285.
This work describes the theory of distillation. A similar discussion could be found in any college-level chemistry text.

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