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an introduction
© Copyright 1997-2023 by M.T. Tham and R.C. Costello
The performance of a distillation column is determined by many factors, for example:
arrored.gif (1174 bytes) feed conditions
  • state of feed
  • composition of feed
  • trace elements that can severely affect the VLE of liquid mixtures
arrored.gif (1174 bytes) internal liquid and fluid flow conditions
arrored.gif (1174 bytes) state of trays (packings)
arrored.gif (1174 bytes) weather conditions
Some of these will be discussed below to give an idea of the complexity of the distillation process.
  Feed Conditions
  The state of the feed mixture and feed composition affects the operating lines and hence the number of stages required for separation. It also affects the location of feed tray. During operation, if the deviations from design specifications are excessive, then the column may no longer be able handle the separation task. To overcome the problems associated with the feed, some column are designed to have multiple feed points when the feed is expected to containing varying amounts of components.
  Reflux Conditions
  reflux.gif (2426 bytes) As the reflux ratio is increased, the gradient of operating line for the rectification section moves towards a maximum value of 1. Physically, what this means is that more and more liquid that is rich in the more volatile components are being recycled back into the column. Separation then becomes better and thus less trays are needed to achieve the same degree of separation. Minimum trays are required under total reflux conditions, i.e. there is no withdrawal of distillate.

On the other hand, as reflux is decreased, the operating line for the rectification section moves towards the equilibrium line. The ‘pinch’ between operating and equilibrium lines becomes more pronounced and more and more trays are required. This is easy to verify using the McCabe-Thiele method.

The limiting condition occurs at minimum reflux ratio, when an infinite number of trays will be required to effect separation. Most columns are designed to operate between 1.2 to 1.5 times the minimum reflux ratio because this is approximately the region of minimum operating costs (more reflux means higher reboiler duty).

  Vapour Flow Conditions
  Adverse vapour flow conditions can cause
  • foaming
  • entrainment
  • weeping/dumping
  • flooding
Foaming refers to the expansion of liquid due to passage of vapour or gas. Although it provides high interfacial liquid-vapour contact, excessive foaming often leads to liquid buildup on trays. In some cases, foaming may be so bad that the foam mixes with liquid on the tray above. Whether foaming will occur depends primarily on physical properties of the liquid mixtures, but is sometimes due to tray designs and condition. Whatever the cause, separation efficiency is always reduced.
Entrainment refers to the liquid carried by vapour up to the tray above and is again caused by high vapour flow rates. It is detrimental because tray efficiency is reduced: lower volatile material is carried to a plate holding liquid of higher volatility. It could also contaminate high purity distillate. Excessive entrainment can lead to flooding.
This phenomenon is caused by low vapour flow. The pressure exerted by the vapour is insufficient to hold up the liquid on the tray. Therefore, liquid starts to leak through perforations. Excessive weeping will lead to dumping. That is the liquid on all trays will crash (dump) through to the base of the column (via a domino effect) and the column will have to be re-started. Weeping is indicated by a sharp pressure drop in the column and reduced separation efficiency.
Flooding is brought about by excessive vapour flow, causing liquid to be entrained in the vapour up the column. The increased pressure from excessive vapour also backs up the liquid in the downcomer, causing an increase in liquid holdup on the plate above.  Depending on the degree of flooding, the maximum capacity of the column may be severely reduced. Flooding is detected by sharp increases in column differential pressure and significant decrease in separation efficiency.
Reboiler Temperature
As a reboiler slowly plugs on the tube side, the bottoms temperature goes down and this leads to low vapor flow. Online monitoring of the heat transfer coefficient in control system can identify this problem early on along with the monitoring of bottoms temperature. A self cleaning heat exchanger when used in place of a reboiler can mitigate this problem.
Reduction in Vacuum
A slight drop in vacuum causes the boiling point(s) to go up, leading to low vapour flow, loss of production and and off spec products.
Wet Feed
If a column is typically fed a dry hydrocarbon feed but the feed becomes contaminated with water then at some point, when the water/ hydrocarbon mixture enters the tower the water can vaporize so rapidly that it causes an over pressure event. This can and will damage trays. This effects column efficiency and product quality.
  Column Diameter
  Most of the above factors that affect column operation is due to vapour flow conditions: either excessive or too low. Vapour flow velocity is dependent on column diameter. Weeping determines the minimum vapour flow required while flooding determines the maximum vapour flow allowed, hence column capacity. Thus, if the column diameter is not sized properly, the column will not perform well. Not only will operational problems occur, the desired separation duties may not be achieved.
  State of Trays and Packings
  Remember that the actual number of trays required for a particular separation duty is determined by the efficiency of the plate, and the packings if packings are used. Thus, any factors that cause a decrease in tray efficiency will also change the performance of the column. Tray efficiencies are affected by fouling, wear and tear and corrosion, and the rates at which these occur depends on the properties of the liquids being processed. Thus appropriate materials should be specified for tray construction.
  Weather Conditions
  Most distillation columns are open to the atmosphere. Although many of the columns are insulated, changing weather conditions can still affect column operation. Thus the reboiler must be appropriately sized to ensure that enough vapour can be generated during cold and windy spells and that it can be turned down sufficiently during hot seasons. The same applies to condensers.
These are some of the more important factors that can cause poor distillation column performance. Other factors include changing operating conditions and throughputs, brought about by changes in upstream conditions and changes in the demand for the products. All these factors, including the associated control system, should be considered at the design stages because once a column is built and installed, nothing much can be done to rectify the situation without incurring significant costs. The control of distillation columns is a field in its own right, but that's another story. COSTELLO can provide engineering design for new columns and support/ troubleshooting for existing columns. Our engineers have extensive experience in column instrumentation and controls.