Having the right equipment in order to receive the highest quality possible of essential oil and hydrosol is of the utmost importance. Our distillers were made by an amazing craftsman and artist, Gary Stadler, in California, US. He has thought of every necessary detail, making the system efficient, practical and durable. You can find them here.
We have two of Gary’s distillers. One of 75 liter (20 gallon) bio-capacity and one of 350 liters (100 gallon) bio-capacity. They are both made of food grade stainless steel 316, they are double walled, implement a zero pressure architecture, have a reversed condenser unit and are propane powered. All of these attributes are very important as explained below.
Size does matter when high quality is desired. Large distillers of 5 to 10 thousand liters of bio-capacity, which all major essential oil companies use, will inevitably increase the pressure inside the system due to the sheer weight of the biomass. Increased pressure will also lead to temperatures above 100oC. Both these factors help in breaking down the delicate chemical compounds essential oils are made of, thus degrading their quality. So it is the small size of a distiller – no more than 500 liters of bio-capacity – that ensures higher quality.
The material a distiller is made of, must be inert to the compounds being distilled, must be able to sustain the distillation temperatures without altering its composition or releasing toxic chemicals and it must have a non absorbing surface so it can be cleaned thoroughly. Glass and food grade stainless steel 316 – like our distillers – are the only suitable materials for extracting essential oils. Copper distillers that are used sometimes in alcohol making are completely forbidden for essential oils since copper acts as a catalyst for many of their compounds, breaking them down and degrading the quality of the essential oil.
An extremely important aspect of extracting essential oils is the insulation of the chamber holding the biomass. The essential oil compounds must be taken away from the chamber as fast as possible after their release from the plant structures. A poor insulation of the chamber will cause a drop in temperature of the steam and create condensation on its walls. Any essential oil trapped in that condensation, will flow down the walls only to either boil or evaporate again later. This process will cause break down and degradation of it chemical compounds.
Our distillers are double walled. The biomass chamber resides inside another slightly bigger chamber. The hot steam is allowed to circulate also in the space between the two chambers. Any condensation that happens due to the lower than 100oC temperature of the environment will happen on the internal walls of the outer chamber where there is only pure water steam circulating and there is no plant material or essential oil. The inner chamber is always kept at 100oC since the hot steam circulates around it, thus never allowing any condensation. This is the best insulation solution possible since a single walled distiller wrapped with any insulating material would never achieve a zero drop of temperature on its walls. Another important aspect of this insulating method, is its high energy efficiency.
Any pressure higher than the atmospheric pressure inside the distillation chamber will also cause an increase in temperature above 100oC. Both the higher pressure and temperature will cause the delicate compounds of the essential oil to break down and degrade. Making sure that never happens during the distillation is thus of extreme importance.
Various factors play a role in achieving a zero pressure distillation. The loading of the biomass and its compression, the speed of the steam passing through the biomass and the design of the system. You can read about how we take care of the first two factors in the distillation process . Our distillers implement an open air architecture by their shape, their diameter to height ratio, the size and length of the pipe connecting the biomass chamber to the condenser and the design of the condenser itself. These attributes make sure that the steam will find no blockage or bottleneck along its way, even if by mistake it is not condensed fully, thus never increasing the pressure higher than the external atmospheric pressure.
The condenser is where the magic happens. The steam is cooled down and the essential oil in it is liquefied, rushing down towards the separator where it appears for the first time before our eyes. Having an efficient condenser makes sure that all of the essential oil, meaning all of its parts, even the most volatile ones, are liquefied and captured.
Typically, in most systems, the steam exiting the biomass chamber runs through a pipe which in its turn passes through a container or a bigger pipe, in which cold water runs. Our systems implement a reverse architecture. The steam enters an elongated chamber freely at its top. Inside there is a long stainless steel tube in helical form – top to bottom – in which the cold water runs. The chamber, having its exit at the bottom, forces the steam to go downwards, touching the walls of the chamber and the cold water running tube. The amount of cold surfaces that the steam touches is more than enough to liquefy the steam along less than half of the condenser’s length. The remaining half is to make absolutely sure that any highly volatile essential oil components are completely liquefied and to make room for responding when altering the distillation speed.
Another important plus of this design is that by having the walls of the condenser assisting through dispersing the heat to the environment and the pipe of the cold water being thin and very long, making the most out of the thermal capacity of the cold water, it is very efficient. It uses only a fraction of the cooling water volume of conventional systems. Water is a precious resource and we make the most out of it, by channeling the used cooling water through a network of pipes to a drop irrigation system for our land.
In order to produce steam for the distillation, pure water of Ikaria is heated to boiling temperature. Throughout the duration of the distillation the amount of steam needed, which determines the speed of the distillation, varies. The response to the need to change the distillation speed must be immediate on some occasions, such as channeling in the biomass or an imminent collapse of the biomass. We use propane with an efficient burner focused precisely under the boiling water, achieving immediate and fine adjustments, simply by turning the knob of the propane regulator.
Using wood is out of the question as there is absolutely no fine control over the intensity of the heat. Heating by electricity can be an alternative but it doesn’t quite have the response speed and fine adjustment of propane, so we have ruled it out.
Having the right equipment though, is just the first step. As the popular saying goes, clothes do not make the man. A good distiller cannot produce high quality product unless it is used properly. You can keep on reading about the distillation process.