Norbert Rillieux Created A Sugar Refining Evaporation Pan System, Revolutionising The Industry

by | Jan 25, 2017 | Black Inventors, History | 0 comments

Norbert Rillieux was born on March 17, 1806 to a prominet Creole family in Louisiana. He is widely considered as one of the earliest chemical engineers.

Rilleux worked on a lot of things in his life and made many advancements, however he is most well know for creating  a sugar refining evaporation pan system that revolutionised the industry.

The device allowed for energy efficient evaporation at lower temperature.

Here is what Wikipedia wrote about his work:

Sugar refining

In the 1800s, the process for sugar refinement was slow, expensive, and inefficient. The most common method of converting sugarcane into sugar was called the “Sugar Train”; it was also known as the “Spanish Train” or “Jamaica Train”. The sugarcane juice was pressed from the cane and poured into a large kettle, where it was heated and left until most of the water evaporated. The workers, who were mostly slaves, poured the resultant thick liquid into smaller and smaller pots as the liquid continued to thicken. Each time the liquid was poured, some of the sugar was lost. A considerable amount of sugar was also burned because it was difficult to monitor and maintain appropriate heat levels for the pots. The process was also dangerous for the workers, who had to routinely transfer the hot liquid.

While in France, Norbert Rillieux started researching ways to improve the process of sugar refining. Meanwhile, back in Louisiana, Norbert’s brother, Edmond, a builder, along with their cousin, Norbert Soulie, an architect, began working with Edmund Forstall to build a new Louisiana Sugar Refinery. In 1833, Forstall, having heard about Rillieux’s research into sugar refining, offered him the position of Head Engineer at the not-yet-completed sugar refinery. Rillieux accepted the offer and returned to Louisiana to take up his new position. However, the sugar refinery was never completed due to disagreements between the principals, mainly Edmond Rillieux, his father, Vincent Rillieux, and Edmund Forstall. These disagreements created long-term resentments between the Rillieux family and Edmund Forstall.

In spite of the failure of the collaboration, Norbert Rillieux remained focused on improving the sugar refining process, developing his machine between 1834 and 1843, when he patented it. The multiple-effect evaporation system that he said addressed both the spillage that resulted from transfer and the uneven application of heat, as well as making the process safer for workers. The system utilizes a vacuum chamber or a container with reduced air to lower the boiling point of the liquids. Inside this several pans are stacked to contain the sugarcane juice. As the bottom pans heat, they release steam to transfer heat to the pans above. The heat is more easily controlled than in the Jamaican Train method, because one source is needed, at a lower temperature, for multiple pans of sugarcane juice. This prevents the sugar from being burned and discolored. As the workers do not have to transfer the liquid, sugarcane is not spilled and they are at a reduced risk for burns.

Several years after patenting the system, Norbert Rillieux successfully installed it at Theodore Packwood’s Myrtle Grove plantation. Not long after this, Rillieux’s new system was installed at Bellechasse, a plantation owned by Packwood’s business partner, Judah P. Benjamin. Benjamin and Rillieux became quite good friends, possibly due to their similar social situation; they were both considered outsiders in Louisiana’s very class-conscious society.

After these successes, Norbert Rillieux managed to convince 13 Louisiana sugar factories to use his invention. By 1849, Merrick & Towne in Philadelphia were offering sugar makers a choice of three different multiple-effect evaporation systems. They were able to select machines capable of making 6000, 12000, or 18000 pounds of sugar per day. The evaporators were so efficient that the sugar makers were able to cover the costs of the new machine with the huge profits from the sugar produced with Norbert Rillieux’s system.

Other work

Rillieux also turned his engineer skills to dealing with a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans in the 1850s. Rillieux presented a plan to the city that would eliminate the moist breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carried the disease by addressing problems in the city’s sewer system and drying swamplands in the area. The plan was blocked by Edmund Forstall, now a state legislator. Several years later, the ongoing yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans was addressed by engineers using a method extremely similar to what Rillieux had proposed.

Later in life he returned to France (around 1850) just a few years before the the American Civil War. He became very interested in egyptology and hierglyphs but did return briefly to the Sugar industry to refine the system for using sugar beets.

Norbert Rillieux died on October 8, 1894, at the age of 88.

A memorial was erected in the Louisiana State Museum that reads

“To honor Norbert Rillieux, born at New Orleans, Louisiana, March 17, 1806, and died at Paris, France, October 8, 1894. Inventor of Multiple Evaporation and Its Application to the Sugar Industry.”


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