Twelve Alchemical Processes
Some alchemical manuscripts mention twelve operations, although they are not always given in the same order or name. Actually there is only one operation, and that is the purification of the alchemist himself. The different operations are only aspects and different ways of describing this one process. The twelve operations are sometimes compared with the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The Zodiac is used as a symbol for progression of the Great Work. There is also a connection to the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Hercules is sometimes portrayed in alchemical iconography. The hermetic Philosophers were well versed in Greek mythology, and thus one needs to read up on the stories of these Twelve labors because they are all symbolic for inner, spiritual work that a candidate for the spiritual path needs to undergo.
Calcination (also referred to as calcining) is a thermal treatment process applied to ores and other solid materials to bring about a thermal decomposition, phase transition, or removal of a volatile fraction. The calcination process normally takes place at temperatures below the melting point of the product materials. Calcination is to be distinguished from roasting, in which more complex gas–solid reactions take place between the furnace atmosphere and the solids. In alchemy, calcination was believed to be one of the 12 vital processes required for the transformation of a substance. Alchemists distinguished two kinds of calcination, actual and potential. Actual calcination is that brought about by actual fire, from wood, coals, or other fuel, raised to a certain temperature. Potential calcination is that brought about by potential fire, such as corrosive chemicals; for example, gold was calcined in a reverberatory furnace with mercury and sal ammoniac; silver with common salt and alkali salt; copper with salt and sulfur; iron with sal ammoniac and vinegar; tin with antimony; lead with sulfur; and mercury with aqua fortis. There was also philosophical calcination, which was said to occur when horns, hooves, etc., were hung over boiling water, or other liquor, until they had lost their mucilage, and were easily reducible into powder.
Congelation is the process by which something congeals, or thickens. This increase in viscosity can be achieved through a reduction in temperature or through chemical reactions. Sometimes the increase in viscosity is great enough to crystallize or solidify the substance in question.
Fixation in alchemy refers to a process by which a previously volatile substance is "transformed" into a form (often solid) that is not affected by fire. It separates the substance or object and puts it back in the same or different shape at a subatomic level. Fixation is sometimes listed as one of the processes required for transformation of a substance, or completion of the alchemical magnum opus.
Dissolution is the process by which a solid, liquid or gas forms a solution in a solvent. In solids this can be explained as the breakdown of the crystal lattice into individual ions, atoms or molecules and their transport into the solvent. For liquids and gases, the molecules must be compatible with those of the solvent for a solution to form. The process of dissolution is governed by the thermodynamic energies involved, such as the heat of solution and entropy of solution. Overall the free energy must be negative for dissolution to occur. In turn, those energies are controlled by the way in which different chemical bond types interact with those in the solvent. Solid solutions occur in metal alloys and their formation and description is governed by the relevant phase diagram.
Digestion is a process in which gentle heat is applied to a substance over a period of several weeks. This was traditionally performed by sealing a sample of the substance in a flask, and keeping the flask in fresh horse dung or sometimes in direct sunlight. Today, practitioners of alchemy use thermostat-controlled incubators. Digestion is considered one of the 12 core alchemical processes and is "ruled", or "dominated", by the zodiacal sign of Leo.
Distillation is a method of separating mixtures based on differences in volatilities of components in a boiling liquid mixture. Distillation is a unit operation, or a physical separation process, and not a chemical reaction. Commercially, distillation has a number of applications. It is used to separate crude oil into more fractions for specific uses such as transport, power generation and heating. Water is distilled to remove impurities, such as salt from seawater. Air is distilled to separate its components—notably oxygen, nitrogen, and argon— for industrial use. Distillation of fermented solutions has been used since ancient times to produce distilled beverages with a higher alcohol content. The premises where distillation is carried out, especially distillation of alcohol, are known as a distillery.
Sublimation is the process of transition of a substance from the solid phase to the gas phase without passing through an intermediate liquid phase. Sublimation is an endothermic phase transition that occurs at temperatures and pressures below a substance’s triple point in its phase diagram. At normal pressures, most chemical compounds and elements possess three different states at different temperatures. In these cases, the transition from the solid to the gaseous state requires an intermediate liquid state. Note, however, that the pressure referred to here is the partial pressure of the substance, not the total (e.g., atmospheric) pressure of the entire system. So, all solids that possess an appreciable vapor pressure at a certain temperature usually can sublime in air (e.g., ice just below 0°C). For some substances, such as carbon and arsenic, sublimation is much easier than evaporation from the melt, because the pressure of their triple point is very high, and it is difficult to obtain them as liquids. Sublimation requires additional energy and is an endothermic change. The enthalpy of sublimation (also called heat of sublimation) can be calculated as the enthalpy of fusion plus the enthalpy of vaporization. The reverse process of sublimation is deposition. The formation of frost is an example of meteorological deposition.
In chemistry and chemical engineering, a separation process, or simply a separation, is any mass transfer process used to convert a mixture of substances into two or more distinct product mixtures, at least one of which is enriched in one or more of the mixture’s constituents. In some cases, a separation may fully divide the mixture into its pure constituents. Separations are carried out based on differences in chemical properties such as size, shape, mass, or chemical affinity between the constituents of a mixture, and are often classified according to the particular differences they use to achieve separation. In the case that no single difference can be used to accomplish a desired separation, multiple processes will often be performed in combination to achieve the desired end.
Ceration is a chemical process, a common practice in alchemy. Pseudo-Geber’s Summa Perfectionis tells us ceration is “the mollification of an hard thing, not fusible unto liquefaction” and stresses the importance of correct humidity in the process. Ceration is performed by continuously adding a liquid by imbibition to a hard, dry substance while it is heated. This typically results in making the substance softer, becoming like molten wax. Pernety’s 1787 Mytho-Hermetic dictionary defines it somewhat differently as the time when matter passes from black to gray and then to white. This is accomplished by continuous cooking. Ceration may be synonymous with similar terms for alchemical burning processes. Incineration, for example is listed by Manly P. Hall.
Fermentation is the process of extracting energy from the oxidation of organic compounds, such as carbohydrates, using an endogenous electron acceptor, which is usually an organic compound. In contrast, respiration is where electrons are donated to an exogenous electron acceptor, such as oxygen, via an electron transport chain. Fermentation is important in anaerobic conditions when there is no oxidative phosphorylation to maintain the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) by glycolysis. During fermentation, pyruvate is metabolized to various compounds. Homolactic fermentation is the production of lactic acid from pyruvate; alcoholic fermentation is the conversion of pyruvate into ethanol and carbon dioxide; and heterolactic fermentation is the production of lactic acid as well as other acids and alcohols. Fermentation does not necessarily have to be carried out in an anaerobic environment. For example, even in the presence of abundant oxygen, yeast cells greatly prefer fermentation to oxidative phosphorylation, as long as sugars are readily available for consumption (a phenomenon known as the Crabtree effect).