Sugar production and the
multiple effect evaporator
Sugar cane had been planted as early as 1750 near New Orleans, but with
only limited success. Throughout most of the eighteenth century indigo,
a blue dye, was Louisianas cash crop, but the ravages of disease
and insects forced planters to look for alternatives. By the 1790s, interest
in sugar revived. Production rose steadily thereafter, and by 1830 Louisiana
was producing over 33,000 tons of sugar annually.
Sugar cane is normally harvested in the fall. After cutting, the cane
is milled to produce sugar cane juice. Originally animal power was used
to grind the cane; by the 1830s, steam power began to replace animal power.
In either case, the cane juice was boiled in four large open kettles arranged
in a kettle train. Each kettle was of different size, and the kettles
were arranged from the largest, which held up to five hundred gallons,
to the smallest. The first kettle, the largest one, was called the grande,
the next the flambeau, then the sirop, and finally, the
smallest, the batterie.
In the first kettle, the grande, the juice was brought close to
the boiling point, and, as water boiled off, teams of slaves ladled the
resulting concentrated sugar syrup to the next kettle. The process was
repeated from the flambeau to the sirop kettles. When the
syrup thickened and reached the proper quality and density, it was transferred
to the batterie. Additional manpower was needed at each step in
the process, which was repeated over and over. As soon as one kettle was
emptied, its contents were replenished with juice from the kettle that
preceded it in the train.
The sugar maker oversaw the syrup boiling in the batterie. When
it reached the proper temperature and the right consistency, he would
make a "strike." At that moment, when the boiling mass began
to produce sugar crystals, the sugar maker ladled the syrup into vats
to cool. If the strike occurred at the right time, the syrup would crystallize;
if not at the right time, the syrup would cool into a mass of worthless
This process, the Jamaica train, was primitive because it required the
constant attention of teams of slaves performing tedious, backbreaking,
and dangerous manual labor; wasteful because much sugar was lost in the
process; and inefficient because each kettle required its own source of
heat, usually wood, and because the heat could not be regulated. Various
attempts, with only partial success, had been made to harness the energy
of the steam rising from the boiling juice to heat the liquid in the next
step in the refining process.
Norbert Rillieuxs great innovation was his understanding of how
latent heat could be used repeatedly in processing sugar. The result was
his Multiple Effect Evaporator under Vacuum, which one expert, John Heitman
in The Modernization of the Louisiana Sugar Industry, 1830-1910,
called "the premier engineering achievement in nineteenth-century
sugar technology." Others have described Rillieuxs design as
revolutionizing the sugar industry much as Eli Whitneys gin revolutionized
the processing of cotton.
Rillieux utilized the latent heat produced from evaporating sugar cane
juice by employing a series of three or four closed evaporating pans in
which vapor was piped out of each pan to heat the juice in the next, with
the vapors in the end going to a condenser. At the same time, pressure
in the system was reduced by pumps, which created partial vacuums and
lowered the boiling point of the liquid. A description of the inventions
design is given in Rillieuxs 1846 patent:
A series of vacuum pans, or partial vacuum pans, have been so combined
together as to make use of the vapor of the evaporation of the juice in
the first, to heat the juice in the second and the vapor from this to
heat the juice in the third, which latter is in connection with a condenser,
the degree of pressure in each successive one being less
of sirup-pans may be increased or decreased at pleasure so long as the
last of the series is in conjunction with the condenser.
Rillieuxs invention allowed for the production of better quality sugar
with less manpower and at reduced cost. One of the major economies was the
conservation of fuel, because wood was needed to heat only the first chamber.
Each successive chamber used the latent heat released by steam from the
preceding chamber. But even though the Rillieux evaporator marked a significant
advance in sugar technology, some antebellum Louisiana planters were reluctant
to install the devices.
The reasons had to do with the inherent contradictions in slavery. Many
planters thought slaves incapable of operating sophisticated equipment.
Other planters believed that teaching slaves new skills might lead to their
questioning authority, which in turn could lead to rebellion. One slaveholder,
Andrew Durnford, himself a free black, refused to
install a Rillieux evaporator because he did not want to "give up control
of his people."
In the end, however, sugar manufacturers around the world in Cuba, Mexico,
France, and Egypt, as well as the United States, adopted Rillieuxs
evaporator. Moreover, the device was not limited to sugar production but
came to be recognized as the best method for lowering the temperature of
all industrial evaporation and for saving large quantities of fuel. Multiple
effect evaporation under vacuum is still used in sugar production as well
as in the manufacture of condensed milk, soap, glue, and many other products.
The Rillieux evaporator was one of the earliest innovations in chemical
engineering and remains the basis of all modern forms of industrial evaporation.
It is perhaps most extraordinary that Rillieux invented his device before
the Civil War, at a time when the vast majority of African Americans were
enslaved. He was successful because he understood the principles of thermodynamics
and latent heat and applied that knowledge to the technical needs of the