Homeschooling Ideas, Chemistry – Steam Distillation of Wild Plants to Make Household Cleaners, Soaps, etc…

My son’s favorite subject is Chemistry. Earlier this year we purchased a steam distillation setup. No, we’re not cooking up moonshine, we are using to extract essential oils and hydrosol from wild plants we collect.  J

Collecting  and identifying wild edible and medicinal plants has been a home school subject for years that we have enjoyed but this year we took it to a new level. We purchased a nice steam distillation set up and thus began our adventure of becoming mad scientists. Mwhahahahah….

Our setup features two 2000ml flasks. One produces the steam and the other acts as the biomass flask.  The glass tubing extends to nearly the bottom of the second flask so that all of the plant matter shares in the steam. From there the steam rises up to the graham condenser whose inner helix coil is being kept cool by constantly circulating coolant water. The liquid collects in the separatory funnel where the essential oil will rise to the top in most cases. Only a few wood and root oils are heavier than water and will sink to the bottom. The hydrosol can be drained off by turning the stopcock on the separatory funnel. The hydrosol can be kept for soap making and many other purposes.

A typical day of distillation goes like this,

  1. Go out and collect the plant or plants you would like to distill. We usually choose plants with a strong scent like pine needles, rosemary or lavender for our purposes.
  2. Break up the plant material, load it into the bioflask. Don’t pack it too tight or the steam will have a hard time moving through the material.
  3. Add water to the other steam producing flask, connecting hoses to water source and drain as directed on your setup.
  4. Start you engines.
  5. Keep a close eye on it as the steam collects into the separatory funnel.
  6. Let the water completely cool then watch as the oil rise to the top of the funnel.
  7. Drain the hydrosol from the bottom and use it to make household cleaners, soaps, air freshener, laundry detergent… etc.…