What’s Destructive Distillation?

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Destructive distillation is a process that breaks down large molecules into smaller ones by heating a substance in an oxygen-poor environment. It has been historically used to determine chemical compositions and harvest compounds. Common substances include wood, coal, and petroleum. The process is also used to recycle waste plastic and create products such as tar, coal gas, and coke. Oil shale can also be subjected to destructive distillation to produce shale oil.

Destructive distillation is a common use of pyrolysis, which is a process that involves heating a substance in an oxygen-poor environment and usually under pressure. The purpose of destructive distillation is to reduce a material into a variety of volatile compounds, which can be collected for use or for further processing. This process has historically been used to determine the chemical compositions of many substances and has been instrumental in harvesting a variety of compounds before they could be synthesized by other means. Some common substances that can undergo destructive distillation include wood, coal, and petroleum.

The way destructive distillation works is that pyrolysis is able to break up large macromolecules. When exposed to extreme heat and lack of oxygen, these molecules can be made to break down into smaller configurations. This process was very useful in determining the chemical composition of a variety of substances and is still used as the primary method of accessing some compounds. It has also emerged as a potential way to recycle waste plastic by breaking down the component polymers.

One way that destructive distillation has been used throughout history is in the creation of tar. The process of making wood tar involves heating pine or other materials in airtight containers. When wood heats up, it cannot burn as there is little or no oxygen present. Instead, it can be decomposed into volatile turpentine and tar, both useful products.

Destructive distillation is also used to derive coal tar using a similar process. A number of useful volatiles can be distilled from bituminous coal, including pyrene and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Coal was also historically distilled into coal gas, which was used for purposes such as heating and lighting.

Coke is a destructive distillation process that is used to turn heavy oil and coal into coke at very high temperatures. Coke is a porous substance that has a variety of industrial uses due to it being so rich in carbon. Common uses of coke include blast furnace fuel, heat shielding, and both industrial and residential heating.

It is also possible to use destructive distillation on oil shale. This sedimentary rock contains large amounts of kerogen, which is an organic compound that can provide useful components when subjected to pyrolysis. One result of this pyrolysis is shale oil, which can be further refined if impurities are removed and hydrogen is added.

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