Finding a soul of a flower, lavender in the lab

Few weeks ago during lab classes at natural substances me and my friend from a working pair got a task to obtain lavender essential oil from dried lavender flowers. I was pretty excited about this and I though it would be a great opportunity to take some pictures and show you some stuff. Into the lab we went, prepared everything necessary for this lab excercise and started our work to do our best!

We weighed 15 grams of dried lavender flowers and put them into the round-bottom flask shown in the picture. After that we measured 100 mls of water and poured it into the flask. In the meantime my friend ‘built’ a set to perform water vapor distillation process. In laboratory conditions this process is the best and most ‘efficient’ way to obtain essential oils from any dried vegetal material. When our set was ready to start we had to wait for the water to start boiling. I’ll tell you more about the process.

Water vapor distillation process is a process to extract essential oils from natural substances like flowers, needles, peel. How does it work? The heart of a set is a kettle with boiling water. Once water starts to boil you can start the process. You connect the kettle with a special distillation joint which is put into the flask with water and your material, lavender in this case.

Water vapor starts to create bubbles in the water and it warms up the content of the flask. The hotter it gets the more intensive the process. Inside the flask water vapor slowly saturates with fragrant, volatile compounds from a substance you’re distilling. This is the condition a compounds needs to meet for this process to be effective – it has to be volatile in temperature of 100*C, boiling water. In other case it’s not gonna work. Sorry.

fragrant compound saturated vapor flows up inside the flask and it goes into the “knee-like” part of the water distillation joint. Here the vapor cools down, water cooler (that slope glass pipe) helps the vapor to condense into drops of water. Once a drop is big and heavy enough it slides down the slope inside a water cooler and lands in the Erlenmayer flask, a receptacle. At this point what you get is a scented water, not an essence yet. Water vapor distillation process requires a lot of patience. It takes few hours to collect 250 mls of water distillate. Then you can make another steps.

Now that you have a water distillate of your favourite flower, citrus fruit or spice it is time to perform some extraction. What’s the deal? All fragrant compounds are organic chemicals which dissolve better in organic solvents. So I put that 250 mls of lavender water into a separator and added 50 mls of methylene chloride. Organic and inorganic don’t mix, they make two phases (like water and oil). You shake the set for a while, wait for these two phases to separate completely and then you pour out the organic phase into the beaker. You repeat this process several times (we had to collect 300 mls of methylene chloride lavender extract) We’re almost there!

The last step is to evaporate as much of organic solvent as possible. Rotary evaporator comes in handy here. You just connect a round-bottom flask with it and wait for the solvent to slowly evaporate. When the entire solvent ‘flies away’ you get what you wanted – the essential oil of lavender (or something else). It’s amount is very… ehm… big. From 15 grams of lavender flowers we got a whopping 0,178 gram of essential oil – that’s 1,19% of efficiency. And that’s A LOT! Plants etc contain essential oils in a very small amount, from just a part of a per-cent to 2 or 3 percent, usually not more. Now you can imagine how much lavender I would have to use to obtain just 10 grams. This explains why natural essential oils are so expensive.

Few olfactory words. When I smelled the essential oil I obtained during that lab classes it wasn’t really great. The smell was quite rough, a little bit harsh green and herbal with the tiniest smell of lavender flowers. It didn’t remind me of lavender I smell in perfume. Still I’m happy I made it! It was fun to do something that closely connects with my passion. Hope you enjoyed the post.

[note: all pictures are my own]

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46 thoughts on “Finding a soul of a flower, lavender in the lab

  1. Jordan River says:

    Great post. Very interesting to go through this process with you Łukas.

  2. poodle says:

    It’s easy to see why essential oils can be so expensive. It takes lots of flowers and lots of time. Great post.

  3. That was fascinating because while I knew the basics of the process, reading it step by step like that really gives me more of an appreciation of how fragrance is both a science and an art.

  4. jilliecat says:

    I agree with Poodle – essential oils are wildly expensive, especially these days. But you have shown us what’s involved, so I suppose it’s not surprising!

  5. shellyw says:

    Super explanation for the less science minded like me. Really enjoy your science posts.

  6. Dear Lucas
    Truly fascinating.
    You’re scientific descriptions are models of clarity and concision.7
    Thank your
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  7. Kevin says:

    Neat! It’s not often you get this perspective in a fragrance blog, so thank you for sharing it!

    • lucasai says:

      Not every perfume blogger is a cosmetics chemist like I am, this gives me some opportunities to look (and do some things) behind the scenes 😉

  8. Great post! That must have been fun to do!

  9. TF says:

    Really interesting post Lucas! Good job on the high yield, hope you and your partner got a good grade for it!

  10. solanace says:

    It’s lovely to see all that hard work!

  11. How fun. You make me want to get into a chemistry lab again!

  12. Undina says:

    It was fun to read. But now you have to explain why it didn’t smell “right” – do you know?

    • lucasai says:

      I guess we didn’t distill the entire methylene chloride which has its own scent. And of course it was a lavender from apothecary, not from Provence. Also it took us two weeks until we got the final oil (it all takes a lot of time and our lab classes are 5 hours long, it’s impossible to do it all during one lab class, so we had to continue a week later)

  13. hajusuuri says:

    How interesting, Lucas! Did the oil have an oily slippery consistency or was it very liquid? Great job explaining it.

  14. Kafkaesque says:

    How very cool! This was fascinating, Lucas. I love these sorts of details, as well as the feel of being there myself. You let me “do” the dreaded chemistry and science but without having any of the actual suffering or long hours. 😉 LOL. One day, you will repeat this experiment with Grasse ingredients and you’ll look back on this post with a fond smile. xoxox

    • lucasai says:

      I’m delighted to hear you felt almost like you did that distillation in person along with me.
      Here’s to hope I’ll be able to work with Grasse lavender one day

  15. Lilybelle says:

    I’ve finally had more than just a half a minute to sit down and read this fascinating post on steam distillation. It’s so interesting! I love lavender, and I always keep a bottle of orgainic essential oil in the house for various purposes. I have a much greater appreciation of it now. I suppose using freshly cut lavender would have resulted in a fresher smelling oil(?). I also like a brand of rosewater by a Bulgarian company, Alteya, who obtain what is called hydrasol rosewater as a byproduct of obtaining rose oil from the petals by the above method. I don’t konw much about it, but it seems like such a gratifying occupation.

    • lucasai says:

      Good you found this post interesting. Lavender essential oil is great, you can put some cotton balls soaked with in in your wardrobe to repel clothes-moths or put in on your pillow for its calming properties

      • lilybelle says:

        I make sachets of organic herbs for tucking inside pillow cases, supposed to promote restful sleep. I don’t know whether they work because so far I’ve given them away as gifts. Lavender is a main ingredient.

  16. rictor07 says:

    You are not supposed to have this much fun as a chemist! haha. dammit, you are making me rethink my career choice.

  17. Natalie says:

    Thanks for sharing this! How interesting, and I was curious too why it didn’t smell right, so thanks for answering that question.

  18. brie says:

    Fascinating read! And very appropos as I am wearing organic lavender essential oil today!

    • lucasai says:

      Oh, you smell very aromatic

      • brie says:

        Thank you !
        I have been meaning to ask you, have you ever smelled real oakmoss? I just got some from Eden Botanicals the other day…it is an extremely thick and viscous e.o. but one tiny drop applied to one tiny wrist…it is AMAZING!!! Even my teenage daughter who doesn’t always like some of my vintage loves said “What smells so good?” I swear it is a perfume unto itself!

        • lucasai says:

          No brie, never tried pure oakmoss essence. I’ve tried clary sage, peppermint, birch, pine, cedar and even pure oud but not oakmoss. This would be interesting experience for me as I quite like chypre.

          • brie says:

            You would love it then! Check out Eden Botanicals…they have some really interesting and unusual essential oils, absolutes,etc. I always like to try the all natural e.o.s as they can smell quite different at times from the synthetic odors.

  19. imagine trying to get the ‘soul’ out of ambergris……loved your article by the way

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