In 1846 Norbert Rillieux patented a sugar-refining process which was to revolutionise the sugar industry. His mother was a slave and his father the master of the plantation where he was born, in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1806, Norbert was sent away to be educated in France. After graduating he returned to the States and took up a teaching post.
Norbert developed a keen interest in engineering. Familiar with the methods used on plantations for processing sugar, he was aware that they were labour intensive and not very efficient. Previously, sugar had been obtained by a process called the “Jamaican Train”. Groups of men (usually slaves) repeatedly poured boiling sugarcane juice from one kettle to another until the liquid was reduced and the residue was brown and lumpy. Rilleux designed a “multiple effect vacuum pan” evaporator. This not only reduced the cost of production but it also produced a higher quantity of sugar – from sugar cane and sugar beet with less waste.
Norbert Rillieux also published papers on the use of steam and on the steam engine. Due to the discrimination he faced in Louisianan, in 1854 he left the United States for good, to return to France where he again turned to engineering inventions.
Today, Norbert Rillieux’s theories still form the basis for manufacturing sugar, soap, gelatin, and condensed milk.
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