What Are the Uses of Distillation in Industry?

by Roy Sylvan ; Updated September 26, 2017

Distillation is a natural process using temperature variation to separate a liquid and one or more other ingredients that are mixed together. Distillation is widely used in industries that refine oil, desalinate water, create liquor, beer and wine, and produce many chemical products used in homes and factories.

The Distillation Process

Boiling grease

Distillation is based on the fact that different substances boil at different temperatures. If you are distilling a mixture of three substances, you raise the temperature of the liquid to the ingredient with the lowest boiling point. This causes that substance to vaporize and rise in the container. You capture and condense it, by cooling, in a separate container. Follow the same process for the other ingredients and you now have purified versions of the three substances in separate containers.

Suppose you have used oil that contains considerable dirt. Distilling the mixture will give you a container with purified oil, while the dirt remains behind.

Oil Refining

Aerial view of Hoston Oil Refinery

When crude oil is extracted, depending on where it’s from, it contains many ingredients that require distillation in order for the refined oil to be used in your car. Fortunately, the many types of hydrocarbons in crude oil boil at different temperatures and can be separated from one another.

In other chemical processes, the various hydrocarbons can be taken apart or combined to produce a variety of products, such as gasoline, plastics, jet fuel, synthetic fibers, crayons, tires and kerosene.

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Desalinizing Water

Deluge of water from drain pipes

Some geographic areas of the planet cannot provide sufficient water to support life. Drinking water can be supplied by distillation plants that turn ocean water into potable water. The distillation process is the same, although the method of heating used to achieve boiling temperatures may vary. The two main sources for producing heat are electricity and gas.

It is possible for you to distill your own drinking water to remove unwanted chemicals, germs and other impurities. However, distilled water will ordinarily have an unsatisfactory taste. It can probably be bought almost as cheaply as the cost to make it yourself.

Distilled Spirits

Young woman and man toasting beers outdoors

Liquor, beer and wine, at some stage of their manufacture, will undergo a distillation process to separate the final liquid product from the grains or fruits they are derived from.

Other Uses

Microprocessor and other computer components

The cosmetic, and pharmaceutical, chemical and manufacturing industries depend on distillation. For example, air separation technology can produce argon. This chemical is used in light bulbs to protect the filament and provides the glow in florescent tubes.

Clorosilanes are distilled to produce the highest grades of silicon that are used in the manufacture of semiconductors, the basis of computers. Turpentine, naptha, phenols, toluene and phytosterols are all produced through distillation. So is pyridine, used as a solvent and waterproofing agent and in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and vitamins.

About the Author

Roy Sylvan has a Ph.D. in communication studies. He directed a large city department of aging, was COO of a consulting company and provided management training to companies and nonprofits. Writing for more than 40 years, Sylvan has authored articles in trade journals, magazines and blogs, and wrote a how-to book on starting a business.

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