Essential Oils-Extraction and Harvesting Techniques

Essential Oils, the phenolic, or phytochemical compounds which are being extracted or harvested from plants. These phytochemicals have nutritional, and therapeutic values. You can find various types of the Botanical Species which are listed on SCIENCE ARENA. This article is focused on the cultivation of essential oils.


In order to isolate essential oils by hydro-distillation, the aromatic plant material is packed in a still and a sufficient quantity of water is added and brought to a boil; alternatively, live steam is injected into the plant charge. Due to the influence of hot water and steam, the essential oil is freed from the oil glands in the plant tissue. The vapor mixture of water and oil is condensed by indirect cooling with water. From the condenser, distillate flows into a separator, where oil separates automatically from the distillate water.

Three Types of Hydro-distillation

Three are three types of hydro-distillation for isolating essential oils from plant materials:
  1. Water distillation
  2. Water and steam distillation
  3. Direct steam distillation

Water Distillation

In this method, the material is completely immersed in water, which is boiled by applying heat by direct fire, steam jacket, closed steam jacket, closed steam coil or open steam coil. The main characteristic of this process is that there is direct contact between boiling water and plant material.

When the still is heated by direct fire, adequate precautions are necessary to prevent the charge from overheating. When a steam jacket or closed steam coil is used, there is less danger of overheating; with open steam coils this danger is avoided. But with open steam, care must be taken to prevent accumulation of condensed water within the still. Therefore, the still should be well insulated. The plant material in the still must be agitated as the water boils, otherwise agglomerations of dense material will settle on the bottom and become thermally degraded. Certain plant materials like cinnamon bark, which are rich in mucilage, must be powdered so that the charge can readily disperse in the water; as the temperature of the water increases, the mucilage will be leached from the ground cinnamon. This greatly increases the viscosity of the water-charge mixture, thereby allowing it to char. Consequently, before any field distillation is done, a small-scale water distillation in glassware should be performed to observe whether any changes take place during the distillation process. From this laboratory trial, the yield of oil from a known weight of the plant material can be determined. The laboratory apparatus recommended for trial distillations is the Clevenger system.

During water distillation, all parts of the plant charge must be kept in motion by boiling water; this is possible when the distillation material is charged loosely and remains loose in the boiling water. For this reason only, water distillation possesses one distinct advantage, i.e. that it permits processing of finely powdered material or plant parts that, by contact with live steam, would otherwise form lumps through which the steam cannot penetrate. Other practical advantages of water distillation are that the stills are inexpensive, easy to construct and suitable for field operation. These are still widely used with portable equipment in many countries.

The main disadvantage of water distillation is that complete extraction is not possible. Besides, certain esters are partly hydrolyzed and sensitive substances like aldehydes tend to polymerize. Water distillation requires a greater number of stills, more space and more fuel. It demands considerable experience and familiarity with the method. The high-boiling and somewhat water-soluble oil constituents cannot be completely vaporized or they require large quantities of steam. Thus, the process becomes uneconomical. For these reasons, water distillation is used only in cases in which the plant material by its very nature cannot be processed by water and steam distillation or by direct steam distillation.

Traditional Method of Producing Attar Using Hydro-distillation

Floral attars are defined as the distillates obtained by hydro-distillation of flowers (such as saffron, marigold, rose, jasmine, pandanus) in sandal wood oil or other base materials like paraffin. Attar manufacturing takes place in remote places because the flowers must be processed quickly after collection. The apparatus and equipment used to manufacture attar are light, flexible, easy to repair, and have a fair degree of efficiency. Keeping in view these facts, the traditional “deg and bhapka” process has been used for centuries and is used even now with the following traditional equipment.

Parts of the tradition Deg, 
  • Deg (still)
  • Bhapka (receiver)
  • Chonga (bamboo condenser)
  • Traditional bhatti (furnace)
  • Gachchi (cooling water tank)
  • Kuppi (leather bottle)
Parts of the tradition Deg,  Deg (still) Bhapka (receiver) Chonga (bamboo condenser) Traditional bhatti (furnace) Gachchi (cooling water tank) Kuppi (leather bottle)
Traditional Extraction DEG setup 

Water and Steam Distillation

In water and steam distillation, the steam can be generated either in a satellite boiler or within the still, although separated from the plant material. Like water distillation, water and steam distillation is widely used in rural areas. Moreover, it does not require a great deal more capital expenditure than water distillation. Also, the equipment used is generally similar to that used in water distillation, but the plant material is supported above the boiling water on a perforated grid. In fact, it is common that persons performing water distillation eventually progress to water and steam distillation.

It follows that once rural distillers have produced a few batches of oil by water distillation, they realize that the quality of oil is not very good because of its still notes (subdued aroma). As a result, some modifications are made. Using the same still, a perforated grid or plate is fashioned so that the plant material is raised above the water. This reduces the capacity of the still but affords a better quality of oil. If the amount of water is not sufficient to allow the completion of distillation, a cohobation tube is attached and condensate water is added back to the still manually, thereby ensuring that the water, which is being used as the steam source, will never run out. It is also believed that this will, to some extent, control the loss of dissolved oxygenated constituents in the condensate water because the re-used condensate water will allow it to become saturated with dissolved constituents, after which more oil will dissolve in it.

Extraction of Essential Oils Using Steam distillation Method

Essential oils can be extracted using a variety of methods, although some are not commonly used today. Nowadays, a reputable distiller will try to preserve the original qualities of the plant, but the final therapeutic result is often not formed until after the extraction process. During extraction, the qualities of the oil change to give it more value - for example, chamazulene (characteristic of the pure blue colour of German Chamomile) is formed during the steam distillation process. Currently, the most popular method for extraction is steam distillation. Many old-time distillers favor this method for most oils, and say that none of the newer methods produces better quality oils. Steam distillation is a special type of distillation or a separation process for temperature sensitive materials like oils, resins, hydrocarbons, etc. which are insoluble in water and may decompose at their boiling point. The fundamental nature of steam distillation is that it enables a compound or mixture of compounds to be distilled at a temperature substantially below that of the boiling point(s) of the individual constituent(s). Essential oils contain substances with boiling points up to 200°C or higher temperatures. In the presence of steam or boiling water, however, these substances are volatilized at a temperature close to 100°C at atmospheric pressure. Fresh, or sometimes dried, botanical material is placed in the plant chamber of the still and the steam is allows to pass through the herb material under pressure which softens the cells and allows the essential oil to escape in vapor form. The temperature of the steam must be high enough to vaporize the oil present, yet not so high that it destroys the plants or burns the essential oils. As they are released, the tiny droplets of essential oil evaporate and, together with the steam molecules, travel through a tube into the still's 18 condensation chamber. As the steam cools, it condenses into water. The essential oil forms a film on the surface of the water. To separate the essential oil from the water, the film is then decanted or skimmed off the top. The remaining water, a byproduct of distillation, is called floral water, distillate, or hydrosol. It retains many of the therapeutic properties of the plant, making it valuable in skin care for facial mists and toners. In certain situations, floral water may be preferable to be pure essential oil, such as when treating a sensitive individual or a child, or when a more diluted treatment is required. Rose hydrosol, for example, is commonly used for it's mild antiseptic and soothing properties, as well as it's pleasing floral aroma. Essential oil isolated by steam distillation are different in composition to those naturally occurring in the oil bearing glands of plants, since the steam distillation conditions cause chemical reactions to occur which result in the formation of certain artificial chemicals, called artifacts. Some of these are considered beneficial e.g. the formation of chamazulene during the steam distillation of Chamomile oil; whilst others may not be e.g. the hydrolysis of linalyl acetate during the distillation of clary sage. Few, if any, essential oils are unscathed by the thermal conditions of steam distillation, but some distillation techniques can, in certain instances, be a measure less damaging than others (e.g. hydro diffusion – a sort of inverted steam distillation where steam is introduced at the top of the vegetable material-packed container, and oil and condensate issue from the bottom – can produce oils with higher ester contents i.e. less thermally induced hydrolysis). A number of factors determine the final quality of a steam distilled essential oil. Aside from the plant material itself, most important are time, temperature and pressure, and the quality of the distillation equipment. Essential oils are very complex products. Each is made up of many, sometimes hundreds, of distinct molecules which come together to form the oil's aroma and therapeutic properties. Some of these molecules are fairly delicate structures which can be altered or destroyed by adverse environmental conditions. So, much like a fine meal is more flavorful when made with patience, most oils benefit from a long, slow 'cooking' process. It is possible that longer distillation times may give more complete oil. It is also possible however, that longer distillation time may lead to the accumulation of more artifacts than normal. This may have a curious effect of 19 appearing to improving the odour, as sometimes when materials that have a larger number of components are sniffed, the perception is often of slightly increased sophistication, added fullness and character, and possibly, and extra pleasantness.

Steam Distillation chamber  ancient model used to extract oil
Traditional Steam Distillation Chamber

Cold Pressing

Cold pressing is used to extract the essential oils from citrus rinds such as orange, lemon, grapefruit and bergamot. This method involves the simple pressing of the rind at about 120 degrees F to extract the oil. The rinds are separated from the fruit, are ground or chopped and are then pressed. The result is a watery mixture of essential oil and liquid which will separate given time. Little, if any, alteration from the oil's original state occurs – these citrus oils retain their bright, fresh, uplifting aromas like that of smelling a wonderfully ripe fruit. It is important to note that oils extracted using this method have a relatively short shelf life, so make or purchase only what you will be using within the next six months.

Solvent Extraction

A hydrocarbon solvent is added to the plant material to help dissolve the essential oil. When the solution is filtered and concentrated by distillation, a substance containing resin (resinoid), or a combination of wax and essential oil (known as concrete) remains. From the concentrate, pure alcohol is used to extract the oil. When the alcohol evaporates, the oil is left behind. This is not considered the best method for extraction as the solvents can leave a small amount of residue behind which could cause allergies and effect the immune system.

CO2 & Super Critical CO2 Extraction

The most modern technologies, Carbon Dioxide and Supercritical Carbon Dioxide extraction involve the use of carbon dioxide as the 'solvent' which carries the essential oil away from the raw plant material. The lower pressure CO2 extraction involves chilling carbon dioxide to between 35 and 55 degrees F, and pumping it through the plant material at about 1000 psi. The carbon dioxide in this condition is condensed to a liquid. Supercritical CO2 extraction (SCO2) involves carbon dioxide heated to 87 degrees F and pumped through the plant material at around 8,000 psi – under these conditions; the carbon dioxide is likened to a 'dense fog' or vapor. With release of the pressure in either process, the carbon dioxide escapes in its gaseous form, leaving the essential oil behind. The usual method of extraction is through steam distillation. After extraction, the properties of a good quality essential oil should be as close as possible to the "essence" of the original plant. The key to a 'good' essential oil is through low pressure and low temperature processing. High temperatures, rapid processing and the use of solvents alter the molecular structure, will destroy the therapeutic value and alter the fragrance.


Carrier oils and essential oils are made from plants. Carrier oils are used to dilute essential oils and “carry” them to skin. That’s because essential oils are potent and can cause irritation when applied directly to skin. Most carrier oils are unscented or lightly scented and don’t interfere with an essential oil’s therapeutic properties. They may be used alone or with other oils to nourish your skin.

Sources And Credits
The above content and Images are sourced from VENKATRAMNA INDUSTRIES, an Industry with 100+ years of expertise in manufacturing of Essential oils using these traditional techniques. They gave us the opportunity to Explore their units in Kannuaj and kanpur and its farms. 

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