An azeotrope (from the Greek a
, not + zein
, to seethe
, turning change) is a condition of a liquid mixture whose
has the same composition
as the corresponding
The most common example of an azeotrope is that of ethanol
(common alcohol) and water. At 1 atm., this mixture forms an azeotrope
at 89.43 mol% ethanol. This means that an 89.43 mol% ethanol solution
cannot be further purified by binary distillation, since the vapor
that is boiled off contains 89.43% ethanol, and the remaining liquid
also contains 89.43% ethanol.
Azeotropes are a drastic restriction on the ability to separate
components using distillation for many mixtures. The azeotrope is
caused by nonideality of the liquid mixture. This means that there are
strong attractive or repulsive forces between
the molecules of the different species.
In the case of repulsive forces, the molecules repel each other --
for example "cowboy" molecules and "indian" molecules1 (I
won't take blame or credit for this analogy). The indian molecules are
the light (more volatile, lower boiling) component. Let's start at the
situation where there are only indians. If we throw in a few molecules
of cowboys, they try strenuously to escape. Because of this tendency,
they will boil off more quickly as compared to a solution made up of
cowboys alone. But the indians (the more volatile) are boiling off as
well. If we add more cowboys to the system, we will eventually reach the
point where the ratio of cowboys-to-indians that is boiled off is equal
to that remaining in the liquid. This point is called the azeotrope, or
more precise a Minimum-boiling azeotrope.
If the molecules attract, rather than repel, the opposite occurs.
This is called a Maximum-boiling azeotrope. In this case the molecules
of the two components have a tendency to stick together, resulting in a
lowering of the apparent boiling point of the mixture. In fact, mixtures
with strong attractive forces can have a boiling point that is higher
than the boiling point of the pure heavy component.
1: William L. Luyben, Leonard A. Wenzel, Chemical Process Analysis: Mass
and Energy Balances, Prentice Hall, 1988.
Phillip C. Wankat, Equilibrium staged Separations, Prentice Hall, 1988.