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 been 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 are just Phantom’s researches, along with some comments of mine. Pay attention, since alchemical works may turn to be less canonical than all the exhausting medieval proceedings we are used to read.
Essentially, 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 being an alchemical operation, the second a chemical one. Sometimes the two operations can be somewhat reunified if we succeed in discover a volatile substance also acceptably rich in Secret Fire. And that’s 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, provide 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 or the resin can be dissolved in alcohol/spirit of wine and precipitated in water.
I don’t know anything about Elephant’s Milk, but I can assure you that Virgin’s Milk is our Mercurius out of salts 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 polymeric modification of benzoic aldehyde. It was used as a medicine for chronic diseases of the lung, as an ingredient in perfumery, and an incense in the Roman Catholic and Ritualist Churches.
The distillation of benzoin is described by Blaise de Vigenere 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 there is an appearance of little aiguilles and filaments 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 decoction of Lignum vite , doth admirable effects, as also Tartar, which contained much quick-silver.” Benzoic acid (Flowers of Benjamin or Flowers of Benzoin) is obtained in large quantity from the distillation of Gum Benzoin.
Benzoic acid sublimes very easily and has been used as “parlor trick” by having it snow in a room. A small quantity of benzoic acid is place 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 and can be extracted from these liquors by adding hydrochloric acid from which the benzoic acid crystallizes out because it has a low solubility in water. One of the few insoluble salts of benzoic acid is the basic ferric salt where it is found in peat bogs.”
Take notice of the wording: “metal salts of benzoic acid”, in fact benzoic acid seems to have 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, benzenecarboxylic acid, phenycarboxylic acid, C6H5COOH, is a very common naturally occurring chemical substance and is found in Gum Benzoin which it contains 10 -20%. It has been used in the past 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), especialy in urinary tract infections, treatment of rheumatic fever, and chronic lung disorders. Benzoic acid is a compound which has a similar carbon ring structure of benzene which was envisioned by Kekulé as a serpent eating its own tail.”
The alchemical serpent eating its own tail has nothing to do with the ring structure of benzene ( see may 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, light weight, and feathery, like newly fallen snow. This substance seems to be 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 Dwarfshave 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 chemical modern processes to extract benzoic acid from natural sources. It may be of some interest to learn features and behaviour of this substance. Of course keep always in the back of your mind 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 is contained in benzoin, storax, liquidambar, castoreum, balsams of tolu and Peru, and other resinous bodies. The principal source, however, is from 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 from the urine of herbivorous animals and from coal-tar products. That made from benzoin only should be used by the druggist and doctor.
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, both recognized it as an acid, and the process of preparation given by the latter is essentially one of the methods used in its production at the present time. 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 essentially that 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 3 or 4 hours or until the acid vapors no longer rise.
Should the paper diaphragm become clogged by the melting of the acid in any watery vapor that may be resent, it should be removed and a new one inserted in its place. 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, and thus becomes 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 its reaching the contaminated bibulous paper. A yield of about 7 or 8 per cent is realized by this method. By breaking up the fused mass left in the container and subjecting it again to sublimation an additional quantity may be obtained. 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 be not too strongly heated.