Benzoic Acid is not the Salt of Wises, as Phantom Plays seems to think, but let us point at this substance as one of the most volatile alchemists may avail. Since, together with Secret Fire, they do need to volatilize mineral salts not so willing to.
This page by Phantom Play has expired, like the whole site, but I decided to “resurrect” it wishing for the one-time owner to find it agreeable. So Phantom, wherever you are, thanks for having dared to put in clear words something which had been, perhaps not concealed, but surely dissembled.
What I shall put in clear words here is just Phantom’s research, along with some comments of mine. Pay attention, since alchemical works may turn out to be less canonical than all the exhausting medieval proceedings we are used to reading.
In Alchemy, we need two things: to gather the more Secret Fire we can and to raise, or sublime/volatilize, mineral salts ( because in there, we have a huge amount of Secret Fire). The first is an alchemical operation, and the second is a chemical one. Sometimes the two operations can be somewhat reunified if we discover a volatile substance also acceptably rich in Secret Fire. And that may happen if the substance has long been exposed to the astronomical sun and moon or belonged to some particularly “pure” animals.
An alchemist who knows how to proceed may find something interesting in this Phantom’s article, provided he/she doesn’t think to take the chemical operations as alchemical: Phantom is here writing as a chemist, not an alchemist.
Phantom Play: “Crude benzoin can be purified by two different means. The crude resin can be distilled in a retort with lime or iron oxide to remove hydrocyanic acid. The resin can be dissolved in the alcohol/spirit of wine and precipitated in water.
When an alcoholic solution of benzoin is added to water, it forms what is called Lac Virginale or Virgin’s Milk. If sugar is added, it forms the Liquor called Elephant’s Milk.”
I don’t know anything about Elephant’s Milk. Still, In many treatises, the alchemists called Virgin’s Milk our Mercurius out of salt from putrefaction and several sublimations, so nothing to do with benzoin solutions. Anyway, take notice of the double solubility in alcohol and water.
“Benzoin, C 14 H12 O2, is a polymeric modification of benzoic aldehyde. It was used as a medicine for chronic lung diseases, as an ingredient in perfumery, and as incense in the Roman Catholic and Ritualist Churches.
Blaise de Vigenere describes the distillation of benzoin in his Tracte du Feu et du Sel, Treatise on Fire and Salt (1608). Benzoin is digested for a few days in Aqua vitae and then distilled. During the distillation, little aiguilles and filaments appear, which have to be removed from the neck of the distilling vessel. This substance is benzoic acid. A hyacinth-colored oil also distills. “It whitens Copper, quickens Gold, and put in a decoction of Lignum vitae, doth admirable effects, as also Tartar, which contained much quick-silver.” Benzoic acid (Flowers of Benjamin or Flowers of Benzoin) is obtained in large quantities from the distillation of Gum Benzoin.
Benzoic acid sublimes very easily and has been used as a “parlor trick” by having it snow in a room. A small quantity of benzoic acid is placed on a stove, where it sublimes and condenses in the air as snowflakes.
Benzoic acid can also be obtained from various balsams, frankincense, myrrh, cranberries, milk, walnuts, cheese, yogurt, tree bark, fruits, vanilla, cinnamon, ambergris, the urine of children and some adults, various vegetables and grasses, coal fly ash, and in dunghills where it is combined with lime and potash.”
Pay attention to these benzoic acid sources.
“It can be easily extracted from the liquor of dunghills, especially the cow, horse, and camel. The metal salts of benzoic acid are soluble in water. They can be extracted from these liquors by adding hydrochloric acid, from which the benzoic acid crystallizes because it has low solubility in water. One of the few insoluble salts of benzoic acid is the basic ferric salt found in peat bogs.”
Take notice of the wording: “metal salts of benzoic acid” benzoic acid seems to have an affinity with metals (and alkalis too). But we don’t need any hydrochloric acid to be added since we are not interested in molecular purity. I repeat: “we just need to volatilize metallic salts.”
“Benzoic acid, benzene carboxylic acid, phenyl carboxylic acid, C6H5COOH, is a very common naturally occurring chemical substance and is found in Gum Benzoin, which contains 10 -20%. It has been used as an antiseptic and is highly anti-bacterial. This may be one of the active ingredients in the Egyptian mummification process.
Benzoic acid and ammonia form ammonium benzoate, which also has been used as a medicine (Tincture of Hyoscyamusas), especially in urinary tract infections, treatment of rheumatic fever, and chronic lung disorders. Benzoic acid is a compound with a similar carbon ring structure to benzene which Kekulé envisioned as a serpent eating its tail.”
The alchemical serpent eating its tail has nothing to do with the ring structure of benzene ( see my article Codex Marcianus Ouroboros). The mere fact of Kekulé having been inspired by this image is meaningless to us.
“Benzoic acid sublimes before it melts at 121.4o C. It is very white, lightweight, and feathery, like newly fallen snow. This substance seems very well known and can be found in the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Here ends Phantom Play’s article. Take notice of the low temperatures. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs have nothing to do with crude benzoic acid but with our Mercurius, as stated above, while the seven dwarfs are metals to be solved in indeed. In the last part, I also provided two modern chemical processes to extract benzoic acid from natural sources. It may be of interest to learn this substance’s features and behavior. Of course, always remember that alchemists are not interested in molecular purity. And additionally that it would be a good alchemical practice not to lose any vapor.
“Benzoic acid is a characteristic constituent of many balsam-resins. It contains benzoin, storax, liquidambar, castoreum, balsams of tolu and Peru, and other resinous bodies. The principal source, however, is gum benzoin, though on account of the scarcity of benzoin yielding profitable quantities of the acid, Botany Bay resin is often used and, as a rule, gives a larger yield than that obtained from true benzoin.
There are two kinds of benzoic acid on the market, English and German. The former is obtained by sublimation of the above-mentioned gums; the latter is from the urine of herbivorous animals and coal-tar products. That made from benzoin only should be used by the druggist and doctors.
Vigenère, as far back as 1608, described benzoic acid as one of the products resulting from the dry distillation of gum benzoin. Lemery (1675) and Scheele, just 100 years later, recognized it as an acid, and the process of preparation given by the latter is essentially one of the methods used in its production. It was discovered by Baron Liebig, in 1830, in the products obtained by distilling hippuric acid and obtained from that acid by the action of acids and alkalies by Dessaignes in 1847.
Several modes of preparing benzoic acid have been given from time to time. We shall only introduce here one dry and one wet method. The dry method, which is essential that was introduced by Mohr and adopted by the Pharmacopoeia of the United States in 1870 is as follows: Into an iron dish, about 8 or 9 inches wide and a couple of inches deep, is introduced about 1 pound of benzoin, broken into coarse fragments or coarsely powdered, spread uniformly over the bottom of the vessel. Over the top of the dish is evenly stretched a piece of coarse filter paper and pasted to the edges of the container. A hat-like, conical receiver is then made of well-sized paper, a little larger at the base than the diameter of the dish to which it is then attached by pasting it securely over the rim of the vessel. The dish, with its contents, is then placed in a sand bath and gently heated not higher than 145° C. (293° F.) at the beginning, gradually raising the heat until 200° C. (392° F.) is reached. The vapors of the acid, which are held in combination with the resin, are thus liberated by the heat and ascending pass through the bibulous paper and condense on the inside of the conical receiver, all empyreumatic oils being absorbed by the paper diaphragm as the vaporous acid passes through it. The heating should be continued for 3 or 4 hours or until the acid vapors no longer rise.
Should the paper diaphragm become clogged by melting the acid in any watery vapor that may be resent, it should be removed and a new one inserted. It occasionally happens that by jarring or by some other means, the condensed acid adhering to the receiving cap becomes detached and falls upon the filter paper, thus becoming contaminated with the empyreumatic products held by it and liquefies, thus impeding the further passage of the vapor. Should this occur, the fallen portion should be re-sublimed to rid it of impurities, and a new diaphragm introduced. To prevent such an accident, a layer or two of gauze or linen may be stretched above the paper division so that any falling particles would be caught by it, thus preventing it’s reaching the contaminated bibulous paper. A yield of about 7 or 8 percent is realized by this method. An additional quantity may be obtained by breaking up the fused mass left in the container and subjecting it again to sublimation. An earthenware vessel may be used instead of an iron one, and the mass may be heated on a common stove plate if desired, but great care should be exercised that the gum is not too strongly heated. Scheele’s wet method consisted in boiling benzoin in water and milk of lime, separating the resulting calcium benzoate while hot by filtration, and precipitating from the solution the benzoic acid through hydrochloric acid. The product is sometimes sublimed to give the appearance of the acid made by the dry method. This process yields about 13 percent. 1/2.
A commercial grade known as German benzoic acid is prepared by mixing the urine of horses and cattle with an excess of lime and evaporating the solution to about one-twelfth of its bulk. The resulting calcium hippurate is then supersaturated with hydrochloric acid, liberating hippuric acid, which is purified by animal charcoal or other means. Hydrochloric acid is then added to the purified hippuric acid and boiled for a one-half hour when benzoic acid and glycocoll (CH2NH COOH) result. Benzoic acid obtained in this manner has a 2-fetid, urinous odor and is purified by recrystallization or by sublimating it with a small quantity of benzoin.
Soluble, when pure, in about 500 parts of water, in 2 parts of alcohol at 15° C. (59° F.), in 15 parts of boiling water, and 1 part of boiling alcohol. Also soluble in 3 parts of ether, seven parts of chloroform, and readily soluble in carbon disulfide, benzol, and fixed and volatile oils but sparingly soluble in benzene. Benzoic acid volatilizes freely with the vapor of water. On heating it to 100° C. (212° F.) it begins to sublime. At 121.4° C. (250.5 F.), it melts, and at a higher temperature, it is consumed without leaving a residue. The acid sublimed from benzoin has a lower melting point and a greater solubility in water.
Benzoic acid has an acid reaction. On heating benzoic acid gradually with three parts of freshly slaked lime in a retort, benzol is evolved. The acid is freely soluble in solutions of alkali hydrates. On carefully neutralizing such a solution, and adding ferric chloride T.S., previously diluted with two volumes of water, and neutralizing, if necessary, a flesh-colored precipitate of ferric benzoate, by ammonia is produced. A solution of benzoic acid in pure, cold, sulphuric acid, when gently warmed, should not turn darker than light brown; if it is then poured into the water, the benzoic acid should separate as a white precipitate, and the liquid should be colorless (absence of readily carbonizable, organic matters). Suppose 0.5 Gm. of the acid and 0.8 Gm. of calcium carbonate be mixed with a little water in a crucible. In that case, the mixture is dried, gently ignited, and then dissolved in water, with the aid of nitric acid in slight excess, to obtain 20 Cc. of filtrate; the addition of silver nitrate T.S. to the latter should not produce much more opalescence (if at all) than is produced by the same reagent in a solution measuring 20 Cc. prepared by dissolving 0.8 Gm. of the same calcium carbonate in water with nitric acid (absence of more than traces of chlorine).
On warming 0.5 Gm. of the acid with 5 Cc. of water and 0.5 Gm. of potassium permanganate in a test tube loosely stoppered and placed in a water bath heated to about 45° C. (113° F.), then tightly stopping and cooling the test-tube with cold water, upon removing the stopper no odor of oil of bitter almond should be discernible (absence of cinnamic acid)”.
Benzoic acid is permanent at ordinary temperatures. If made from hippuric acid, its appearance is often as fine, if not finer, than when produced from benzoin, but traces of a urinous odor can be detected. Suppose the odor of benzoic acid resembles that of horses’ sweat it should be rejected. German benzoic acid is often a pure white; the object in later years has been to make it resemble that produced from the gum. Formerly the crystals produced by this process (artificially) were much the most handsome. It will be observed that though Pharmacopoeia recognizes both the natural and artificial product, its description of the acid is so constructed that it can apply only to the true product produced from the gum, thus practically ruling out the artificial acid. Benzoic acid gives rise to a line of more or less soluble salts known as benzoates.”
And that may give hints about using aromatic substances or urine. We will also see other ancient proceedings.
See also Starkey Pirotechnie & Volatilization of Alkalis and Nicolas Lefevre and the Benzoin Magisterium , on urine volatile salts see also Glaser and the Unladylike, but Volatile, Salt of Urine , Hollandus, How Urine Salts Extract a White and Red Dye ;