Hillbilly Engineering- A Homebuilt Kugelrohr
In the mid 1990′s I had the good fortune to do a 1-year sabbatical replacement teaching gig at Ft Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Of the several colleges in which I was lucky enough to be a faculty member, this school was absolutely the best. The chemistry department had a vitality that I had not experienced elsewhere, and sadly, would not be fortunate enough to repeat.
From my office high up on the mesa next to town I could hear the whistle of the steam locomotives of the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. On friday afternoons a campus Native American group would sit around a single drum outside of Berndt Hall, each striking a hypnotic beat on the preserved skin while chanting and singing in the Ute language. While they were chanting the steam locomotives in the town below would blow their whistles, announcing their arrival for the tourists. The sound of it was an otherworldly experience I have not forgotten.
A prof I got to know at Ft Lewis, Dr. Irwin “Ike” Klundt, was a retired VP from Aldrich. He was to become a mentor and friend. It turns out that Ike was the inventor of the coffee pot kugelrohr that Aldrich offered in its catalog. West Bend, the appliance company, had a coffee pot manufacturing operation in Milwaukee, WI, where Aldrich was then headquartered. Ike learned that they would always have a few off-spec units coming from their mfg line, so he arranged to snag a few of these units. He recognized that these pots were built to contain heat and would be dandy ovens for his application. The large metal coffee pots were delivered to a one man shop somewhere in Milwaukee where the they would be converted to ovens for the Aldrich kugelrohr still, or “bulb-tube” short path distillation device to be more precise.
To provide agitation around the axis of the distillation train, an automotive pneumatic windshield wiper motor provided the needed reciprocating motion. It had a built-in tube that would serve to couple the bulb tube train to the vacuum line. The reciprocating motion of the motor removed the need for a sealed bearing as in the case of a rotary evaporator.
Aldrich sold a geat many of these units. In later years the kugelrohr was modified to enhance safety and ease of use. Aldrich has never been shy about pricing, so the price went way up as well.
I was thinking about this bit of history yesterday as I was operating my home-built kugelrohr. Sometimes shortpath distillation is needed and yesterday was the day for it. Using Ike as my inspiration, I horizontally configured a Buchi rotovap into a kugelrohr distillation unit with a still pot and a bulb tube receiver.
On a hotplate with a temperature indicator, I placed an 8 inch diameter sheet metal 90 degree elbow from Home Depot. The elbow, modified with a bit of aluminum foil, would serve as my hot air bath. The elbow and hotplate assembly is scooted over to the rotovap so that the still pot bulb is isolated in the “oven”. A dry ice/acetone cooling bath for the receiver bulb was made from the bottom of a plastic jar. It was notched on opposite ends to accomodate the receiver joints.
The setup works just like a Buchi-brand kugelrohr, but doesn’t carry the price of a luxury ocean cruise. I know that larger companies would not allow this kind of thing. They would frown on a chemist using his time to kludge together a piece of improvised equipment. Their safety people would not allow the operation of a device that was not purpose manufactured. But when you work for a small company this is one of the things you have to do, and I enjoy every minute of it.