Norbert Rillieux’s strange-sounding invention, the Multiple Effect Evaporator under Vacuum, revolutionized sugar processing, making it safer, cheaper, and more efficient.
Norbert Rillieux is little known today, but his invention, the Multiple Effect Evaporator under Vacuum, revolutionized sugar processing. Rillieux, a free African American, patented his invention in the 1840s. The basic design is still in use in sugar processing and other industries.
As a boy the precocious Norbert showed an interest in engineering, and his father sent him to France for his education. By the age of 24, Rillieux was an instructor in applied mechanics at the Ecole Centrale in Paris. Around 1830, Rillieux published a series of papers on steam engines and steam power.
While in France, Rillieux began working on the multiple effect evaporator. As George Meade, a sugar expert, wrote in 1946: “The great scientific contribution which Rillieux made was in his recognition of the steam economies which can be effected by repeated use of the latent heat in the steam and vapors.” What Rillieux did, and what became the basis for all modern industrial evaporation, was to harness the energy of vapors rising from the boiling sugar cane syrup and pass those vapors through several chambers, leaving in the end sugar crystals.
Rillieux’s evaporator was a safer, cheaper, and more efficient way of evaporating sugar cane juice than the method then in use, the Jamaica train. In this system, teams of slaves ladled boiling sugar juice from one open kettle to another. The resulting sugar tended to be of low quality since the heat in the kettles could not be regulated, and much sugar was lost in the process of transferring juice from kettle to kettle.
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Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program