Continuous Distillation Column Design

Procedure for Continuous Distillation Column Design

Distillation is used to separate components in a feed mixture based upon their relative boiling points. A simple, continuous distillation column can make the separation between two components into two product streams. In multi-component systems, the two main components to be separated are designated as the light and heavy keys. The light key is the more volatile component in greater purity in the top product stream, and the heavy key is the less volatile component in greater purity in the bottom product stream.

Vapor-Liquid Equilibrium

The starting point upon which all column design is based is to accurately determine the relative volatility of the key components to be separated. Using a mass and energy balance simulation program. The user must set up the basis of the simulation by selecting an appropriate fluid package and the components present in the feed. Activity coefficients, estimated by the program or provided by the user, are used to relate non-ideal component interactions.

Column Operating Objectives

The first step in column design is specifying the column operating objectives. These are defined by a primary product composition and an optimal recovery of the product from the waste, recycle or less important by-product stream. These specifications should be in terms of the heavy key impurity in the top stream and the light key impurity in the bottom stream.

Operating Pressure

Once the top and bottom stream compositions are specified, the dew point of the top stream and the boiling point of the bottom stream may be determined at various pressures. An operating pressure should be selected that allows acceptable temperature differences between available utilities because the overhead vapor must be condensed and the bottom liquid reboiled.

When possible, atmospheric or pressure operation of the column is preferred in order to avoid requiring a vacuum system. However, another consideration is component heat sensitivity, which may require lower pressure operation to avoid fouling, product discoloration or decomposition. Often the relative volatility is also improved at lower pressures.

R/Dmin & Nmin and Feed Stage Estimation

Using the simulation program, shortcut procedures based upon total reflux operation allow the minimum reflux ratio (R/Dmin) and minimum number of ideal separation stages (Nmin) to be determined. Using an actual reflux ratio of 1.2 times the minimum reflux ratio will allow an optimal number of stages to be estimated as well as an appropriate feed stage.

Rigorous simulation of the distillation at a given feed rate and composition may now be accomplished by specifying the following: top and bottom product compositions, number of stages, feed stage, and top and bottom pressure.

Parametric cases of this simulation should be used to verify the estimated number of stages and feed location. Add and subtract stages from both the stripping and rectifying section of the column. Do this until the required reflux ratio becomes approximately 1.2 times the minimum reflux ratio, or the trade off between utility usage and the number of stages appears optimal for the specific column. As more total stages are used, the required reboiler duty will decrease until there are diminishing returns.

Diameter and Height of the Column

At this point, the distillation process is well defined, leaving the column diameter and height to be determined. The chosen design case from the simulation program provides the internal liquid and vapor flows and their physical properties for every stage of the column. The column diameter is chosen to provide an acceptable superficial vapor velocity, or “Fs factor”. This is defined as vapor velocity (ft/sec) times square root of vapor density (lb/ft3), and liquid loading defined as volumetric flow rate (gal/min), divided by the cross sectional area of the column (ft2). The column internals can be chosen as either trays or packing. Trayed columns must avoid flooding, weeping and downcomer backup. Packed columns must avoid flooding, minimum surface wetting and mal-distribution.

Project managers should understand and determine these five key design elements for the projects success. Cost, chemical interactions and equipment needs change in a non-linear fashion, as increased output is required. Qualified engineers should consider these critical steps for distillation column design.

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