Destructive distillation is a chemical process in which decomposition of unprocessed material is achieved by heating it to a high temperature; the term generally applies to processing of organic material in the absence of air or in the presence of limited amounts of oxygen or other reagents, catalysts, or solvents, such as steam or phenols. It is an application of pyrolysis. The process breaks up or 'cracks' large molecules. Coke, coal gas, gaseous carbon, coal tar, ammonia liquor, and coal oil are examples of commercial products historically produced by the destructive distillation of coal.
Destructive distillation of any particular inorganic feedstock produces only a small range of products as a rule, but destructive distillation of many organic materials commonly produces very many compounds, often hundreds, although not all products of any particular process are of commercial importance. The distillate are generally lower molecular weight. Some fractions however polymerise or condense small molecules into larger molecules, including heat-stable tarry substances and chars. Cracking feedstocks into liquid and volatile compounds, and polymerising, or the forming of chars and solids, may both occur in the same process, and any class of the products might be of commercial interest.
Historically the process of destructive distillation and other forms of pyrolysis led to the discovery of many chemical compounds or elucidation of their structures before contemporary organic chemists had developed the processes to synthesise or specifically investigate the parent molecules. It was especially in the early days that investigation of the products of destructive distillation, like those of other destructive processes, played parts in enabling chemists to deduce the chemical nature of many natural materials. Well known examples include the deduction of the structures of pyranoses and furanoses.
The process of pyrolysis can be conducted in a distillation apparatus (retort) to form the volatile products for collection. The mass of the product will represent only a part of the mass of the feedstock, because much of the material remains as char, ash, and non-volatile tars. In contrast, combustion consumes most of the organic matter, and the net weight of the products amount to roughly the same mass as the fuel and oxidant consumed.
Destructive distillation and related processes are in effect the modern industrial descendants of traditional charcoal burning crafts. As such they are of industrial significance in many regions, such as Scandinavia. The modern processes are sophisticated and require careful engineering to produce the most valuable possible products from the available feedstocks.