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Applied Thermal Engineering 22 (2002) 889–896

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Saving energy in distillation towers by feed splitting


Giorgio Soave a, Josep A. Feliu b,*

a
Via Europa 7, I-20097 S. Donato Milanese, Italy
b
Hyprotech Europe, S.L., Pg. de Gr
acia 56, E-08007 Barcelona, Spain
Received 1 October 2001; accepted 24 November 2001

Abstract
It is a common procedure to save energy in industrial distillation towers by preheating the feed with heat
recovered from the bottom product. It will be demonstrated theoretically, and shown by simulation means,
that if, before entering the unit, the feed is split into two streams, and only one of them is preheated, further
savings of energy (up to 50%) can be achieved.
The use of a steady state process simulator like Hysyse is precious for a fast and reliable determination
of the optimum split ratio and feed tray.
A typical example of application is given and the use of Hysyse shown. The results for the optimization
of the split ratio are provided showing the economical impact of the proposed solution.  2002 Elsevier
Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Energy savings; Feed splitting; Process simulation

1. Introduction

The operating costs of chemical productive processes are highly influenced by the downstream
separation units. Fifty to eighty percent of the whole process operating cost can come from the
separation trains. Distillation is the most common unit operation in the chemical process in-
dustries. It has an extensive product history and is still reported as ‘‘the method of choice for
many separations, and the method against which other options must be compared’’ [1,2].
Humphrey [3] estimates for the United States consist of 40,000 distillation columns in operation,
which handle more than 90% of all separations for product recovery and purification. The capital

*
Corresponding author. Fax: +349-32-154-256.
E-mail addresses: giorsoav@tin.it (G. Soave), josepanton.feliu@hyprotech.com (J.A. Feliu).

1359-4311/02/$ - see front matter  2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S 1 3 5 9 - 4 3 1 1 ( 0 2 ) 0 0 0 0 6 - 6
890 G. Soave, J.A. Feliu / Applied Thermal Engineering 22 (2002) 889–896

investment for these distillation systems is reported to be at least 8  109 US$. Since distillation is
by far the dominant separation process, the reader is referred to the literature mentioned for a
detailed treatment of its advances [4].
The motivation for research in distillation originates from its serious drawbacks: distillation
columns tend to use huge amounts of energy because of the evaporation steps involved. Typically,
more than half of the process heat distributed to plant operations ends up in the reboilers of
distillation columns [2]. By this, high-level energy is fed at the base of the column and about the
same amount of energy is released at the top, unfortunately at a much lower temperature level.
The difference between the two Gibbs energies can be seen as the necessary energy investment to
reverse the mixing entropy and to separate the components of a given feed by a distillation
process. Often, the energy freed cannot be used for heat integration but is discharged to the at-
mosphere. The amount of energy transformed in the column is unimaginably large as the fol-
lowing approximation shows: Mix and coworkers [5] accounted distillation for about 3% of the
total US energy consumption and recent reports show that this number has not been undergoing
fundamental changes to date. By combination with recent data of the US DOE from 1995 (United
States Department of Energy), distillation columns consume 2:87  1018 J: (2.87 million TJ) a year
which is equivalent to a continuous power consumption of 91 GW or to a 54 million tones of
crude oil. Consequently, the impact in absolute numbers of saving or recovering only 1% of the
heat used by distillation columns would be tremendous. Despite this potential, distillation re-
search has repeatedly been proclaimed to be a dead area, and some universities have even con-
sidered stopping teaching the basics of distillation. However, there has been renewed interest
during the last years, especially since distillation columns have become a favorite subject in the
process systems engineering field, including the areas of process synthesis (process design), process
dynamics and control [6].
The separation of liquid mixtures by distillation depends on differences in volatility between the
components. The greater the relative volatility, the easier the separation. All separation opera-
tions require energy input in the form of heat or work. In the conventional distillation operation,
as typified in Fig. 1, energy is added in the form of heat to the reboiler at the bottom of the
column, where the temperature is highest. Also, heat is removed from the condenser at the top of

Fig. 1. Common industrial column topology.


G. Soave, J.A. Feliu / Applied Thermal Engineering 22 (2002) 889–896 891

the column, where the temperature is lowest. This frequently results in a large energy-input re-
quirement and low overall thermodynamic efficiency, which was of little concern when energy
costs were low. With the dramatic increases in energy costs, complex distillation operations that
offer higher thermodynamic efficiency and lower energy-input requirements are continuously
being explored [7]. Process units built prior to 1973, the year of the drastic rise in energy costs,
were generally designed on a low capital cost investment basis for maximum rates of return.
Energy saving equipment was included in the investment if it obviously improved the return on
investment. No extensive engineering was directed at energy in the design phase. In the current
period of high-energy costs, economics still dictates how much energy a new plant design can
conserve. But the incentive to expend more engineering time in the design phase to optimize the
process with maximum energy conservation has increased. Likewise, there is the economic in-
centive to return to older operating plants and retrofit them with additional energy saving
equipment. Similarly, years ago, plant operators had been instructed to minimize off specification
production. They achieved this and reduced the amount of scrutiny and effort needed to operate
the unit by producing a purer product than necessary. This results in an increase in energy usage.
The basic equipment required for standard continuous industrial distillation is shown in the
topology of Fig. 1. It contains a feed stream F, a top product stream or distillate D and a bottom
stream B. Vapour flows up the column and liquid counter-currently down the column. The va-
pour and liquid are brought into contact on plates, or packing. Other equipment, a part of the
tray section, are a condenser (with its associated heat duty, Qc ), where part of the condensate is
returned to the top of the column to provide liquid flow above the feed point (reflux), and a
reboiler (with its associated heat duty, Qr ), where part of the liquid from the base of the column is
vapourized an returned to provide vapour flow [8].
Several design alternatives can be proposed in order to decrease the energy consumption of
operating distillation towers. Some of them will require additional capital investment like adding
additional exchangers for heat recovery, column revisions, better insulation or column control. In
contrast to this changes, requiring small capital investment, there are other that will require more
expenditure like vapour recompression or heat pump changes. Nevertheless, some operating
procedure revisions like reducing reflux ratio, lowering product specification, lowering pumping
costs, lowering steam usage and using process heaters might require minimal capital investments
and might highly contribute to reduce column energy consumption. If the use of process heaters is
optimized (as proposed in our contribution) the decrease on waste of energy can be further im-
proved.

2. Discussion

For the whole paper discussion, it will be assumed that flow rates and compositions of feed and
products are constant, as well as column pressure profile. In such way, temperatures and en-
thalpies of products (hD and hB ) are constant, while feed temperature and feed enthalpy (hF ) may
vary.
Normally, the operating costs of industrial distillation towers mentioned above are usually
dependent on the reboiler heat duty. With a topology like the one described in the Introduction
chapter, reflected into Fig. 1, the reboiler heat duty Qr can be calculated from a heat balance
892 G. Soave, J.A. Feliu / Applied Thermal Engineering 22 (2002) 889–896

around the whole tower. The global heat balance keeps into account the condenser duty and the
feed heat content:
Qr ¼ Qc þ B  h B þ D  h D  F  h F ð1Þ
From the balance above, it is evident that one direct way of decreasing reboiler duty, Qr is by
increasing the enthalpy of the feed. To increase the feed enthalpy two options are available from
an operating point of view:

1. Preheat the feed with external heat: This requires and additional consumption of heat which is
equal to the variation of the heat content of the feed so, no advantage at all. Additionally, the
associated increase in condenser heat duty, due to a warmer feed, would give an increase of the
total heat consumption.
2. Preheat the feed with the bottom product stream (as shown in Fig. 2): In that case, the increase of
the feed heat content would suppose a real decrease of Qr .

Unfortunately, there is a drawback in the proposed column topology modification because,


while hF increases, so does to a minor extent Qc , due to the increase in the minimum reflux ratio,
hence of the real reflux ratio for a fixed number of trays.
In a new thermal balance around the column, both Qc and F  hF are increased. If we use DQc ,
defined as the increase in condenser heat duty:
DQc ¼ Q0c  Qc ð2Þ
and Qrec , defined as the heat recovered by preheating the feed:
Qrec ¼ F  h0F  F  hF ð3Þ
then, a new thermal balance, resulting from the combination of Eqs. (1)–(3) can finally be written
as:
Q0r ¼ Q0c þ B  hB þ D  hD  F  h0F
ð4Þ
Q0r ¼ Qr þ DQc  Qrec

Fig. 2. Common topology change when bottom product is much warmer than feed.
G. Soave, J.A. Feliu / Applied Thermal Engineering 22 (2002) 889–896 893

Fig. 3. Proposed solution: splitting the feed in such a way that the non-heated fraction keeps the reflux ratio low and
the heated one recovers energy from the reboiler.

From the analysis of Eq. (4) above it can be highlighted that the recovered heat Qrec prevails
over the increase of the condenser duty DQc and the result is that Q0r < Qr so, there is an energy
consumption advantage in preheating the feed. Nevertheless, due to the increase in condenser heat
duty then Q0r > Qr  Qrec . In other words, the decrease in the reboiler duty is not equal to the
recovered heat but only a fraction of it.
The problem that needs to be solved is how to take full advantage of the heat recovered from
the bottom product and how to maximize its effect. The proposal presented in this work is to split
the feed before it enters the heat exchanger in such a way of keeping a proper fraction of the feed
at its original temperature and the rest being heated up with the warmer bottom product. The
objective of the cold feed fraction is to keep the minimum reflux ratio low so avoiding, or reducing
to a minimum, the increase in the condenser duty by feeding it to a higher column tray. The hot
fraction is fed to a lower tray and has the objective of recovering heat from the bottom product.
Fig. 3 shows the topological changes proposed to the industrial distillation column.
There is a best value of the ratio of the feed flow rates (splitting ratio) that corresponds to the
minimum reboiler duty. A steady state simulator, like Hysyse [9,10] is the best tool to find such
an optimum split ratio. In general, the reflux ratio needed for a given separation is close to the
reflux ratio with a cold feed, and the recovered heat from the bottom product is close to that with
a completely preheated feed. The final result is a sharp decrease of the reboiler duty with respect to
both cases. In the limiting case, if the reflux ratio does not increase and the heat recovery is
complete:

• the new reboiler duty would be equal to the reboiler duty with the cold feed minus the recovered
heat from the wholly preheated feed, and this would be minimum:
Q0r ¼ Qr ðcold feedÞ  Qrec ðwholly preheated feedÞ ¼ minimum ð5Þ

2.1. Some additional considerations

In presence of two feeds there exist two values of the minimum reboiler duty: one is calculated
from the minimum reflux rate and condenser duty by a tower heat balance, the other one is
894 G. Soave, J.A. Feliu / Applied Thermal Engineering 22 (2002) 889–896

Fig. 4. Two solutions for minimum reboiler duty.

calculated directly by a treatment symmetrical to that applied for Rmin . It has to be taken the
highest one of the two.
The one associated to the minimum reflux ratio prevails at higher cold feed flow rates. It is
constant if the hot feed flow rate is sufficient to recover all the heat from the bottom product,
otherwise (more common) it tends to decrease as the hot feed rate increases since that improves
the recovery of heat. From this point of view, it is better to have high hot feed flow rates. On the
other side, the minimum reboiler duty calculated directly, associated to the conditions of the hot
feed, tends to increase when the flow rate is increased due to the fact that its temperature is de-
creased. From this point of view, it is better to have low hot feed flow rates.
The best working point is located at the point where the two lines cross each other, as seen in
Fig. 4. Often, the hot feed flow rate at the working point is not enough for a complete recovery of
heat from the bottom product and this would slightly decrease the actual gain.
Hot and feed streams have to be introduced at a different column tray. As wrong feed tray
location would increase the reboiler duty, optimum feed trays for the cold and hot streams are to
be found. The results obtained by running a process simulator are ideal to find such an optimum.

3. Case study

The results of a case study follow below to show the validity of the alternative tower topology.
It is proposed to separate a common industrial propane–benzene mixture. A usual feed to such a
distillation tower is 80% benzene purity at 20 C and 15 bar. The separation has to achieve a
99.9% benzene recovery at the bottom product and 99.9% propane purity at the distillate product.
To be consistent in the case study when results will be compared, all three column topologies
shown later are run with the same tray section (30 theoretical stages) and at the same operating
pressure. Just the feed location varies from case to case. To simulate a classical industrial situa-
tion, the same heat exchanger configuration (that is characterized by the same U  A coefficient)
has been used in both preheated simulations to represent a single heat exchanger availability in the
plant.
The simulated results with a non-preheated column will be considered as the base case to
compare to the alternative proposals of preheating the feed.
Fig. 5 shows graphically the results obtained from several runs of the process simulator. The
common solution of preheating the whole of the feed that enters the column saves about 1600 MJ/
h in the reboiler as expected but, on the other side, it increases the condenser duty and, conse-
quently, the dimensions of the upper section of the tower.
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Fig. 5. Results of the optimization procedure. For the case being studied, optimum is found at a 42% of feed being left
cold.

Table 1
Results of the comparative study (Fig. 5)
Case study name Non-preheated flow (%) Condenser duty (MJ/h) Reboiler duty (MJ/h)
Base case (Fig. 1) 100 372.6 2677.0
Full preheating (Fig. 2) 0 892.2 1042.0
Partial preheating (optimum) (Fig. 3) 42 373.5 664.2

By bypassing half of the feed through the heat exchanger, keeping it cold, and feeding it to an
upper section of the column it is possible to decrease the energy demand of the condenser down to
values without preheating, and, at the same time, to decrease further the reboiler duty. A detailed
study can be run using Hysyse process simulator to prove that an optimum split ratio exists. For
the case being studied, 42% of the feed should be left cold. Working with this optimum split ratio,
it is possible to save 2000 MJ/h of reboiler duty with respect to the base case and about 400
additional MJ/h with respect to the fully preheated feed (Table 1).
It is possible to optimize further the energy consumption by looking for the optimum location
of the feed trays. This fine-tuning of the optimum solution can just add an additional 5% re-
duction and it is not shown in this paper. The results show the values obtained when feeding the
top column section at tray 10 and the below section at tray 22. The base case and the full pre-
heated feed examples were run by feeding the column at tray 12.

4. Conclusions

With respect to the common solution of preheating the whole feed with the bottom product,
heating only part of the feed:
896 G. Soave, J.A. Feliu / Applied Thermal Engineering 22 (2002) 889–896

1. Decreases the reboiler duty.


2. Decreases the condenser duty (keeping the same as the base case without preheating).
3. Increases thus the capacity of the tower (the vapour and liquid traffics along the tower are de-
creased), allowing to revamp overloaded towers.
4. Requires negligible investment for the introduction of a bypass to the preheater and the
changes of the feed trays.
5. Requires some runs of Hysyse steady state simulator to find the best split ratio (and, option-
ally, the best feed trays location).
6. The described concept can be also applied to the reduction of condenser duty of cold towers
(i.e. demethanizers) by pre-cooling part of the feed by the distillate stream.

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