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Chemical and Process Engineering Resources

Energy Conservation in Distillation

Dec 13 2010 09:23 AM | Chris Haslego in Separation Technology ***--

The preferred method of separation in the chemical industry, distillation, is a very energy intensive process. Fine tuning your distillation columns (and in some cases, making major changes) can save your company thousands of dollars a year or more. Consider the following distillation column shown in Figure 1 and detailed in Table 1:

Figure 1: Distillation Column

We'll examine this column and with some help from the Tower Pricing and Sizing Add-In, we'll see how small changes can save you money in energy costs.

Check the Product Purity

Rating: Little to no investment
Many companies tend to excessively purify products and sometimes with good reason. However, purifying to 98% when 95% is acceptable is just not necessary. In this case, the reflux rate should be decreased in small increments until the desired purity is obtained. In our example, the current reboiler duty will require $68,000 in low pressure steam per year. However, if the purity is decreased and the duty in the reboiler decreases by 5% (down to 2545 MJ/h), the cost of steam decreases to $64,500.

Summary: Excess purification was causing increased spending in the amount of $3,500 per year in the reboiler alone.

Seasonal Operating Pressure Adjustment

Rating: Little or no investment
For plants that are in locations that experience winter climates, the operating pressure can be reduced according to a decrease in cooling water temperatures. Although lowering the pressure in our column would actually be an expense since it's under vacuum, this would not always be the case. The lower pressure will facilitate separation thus lowering energy consumption.

Summary: Take advantage of lower temperatures outside.

Upgrading Column Internals
Rating: Moderate investment
Damaged or worn internals can turn your distillation column into a money pit. As the internals become damaged, efficiency decreases and pressure drops rise. This causes the column to run at a higher reflux rate over time. With an increased reflux rate, energy costs will increase accordingly. Replacing the trays with new ones or adding a high performance packing can have the column operating like the day it was brought online.
Summary: If operating conditions have seriously deviated from designed operating conditions, this moderate investment can be well worth the price tag in the long run.
Improved Heat Integration
Rating: High investment
In many cases, the overhead product can be used to preheat the feed stream of distillation columns. This yields reductions in both condenser and reboiler utilities. Currently, our column uses $68,000 in steam and $3,500 in cooling water. If the heat duty in each were reduced by 7%, the cost of steam is reduced to $63,000 and the cost of cooling water decreases to $3,200. Of course, there may be many other opportunities for heat integration.
Summary: One example of heat integration yields an annual savings of $5,300 per year. A good economic analysis of this option will tell you if it's right for your situation.
Upgrading the Control System
Rating: High investment
Even a perfectly designed column will not utilize energy inputs properly under a poor control system. The concept is quite simple, the less advanced your control system is, the more decisions that DCS (Distributed Control Systems) operators must make. Unfortunately, even the most senior operators will find it difficult to operate a column at its optimal energy input levels. Upgrading your control system, especially those columns with older controllers, can bring your column to its optimal operating points.
Summary: Older control systems cannot last forever. Check the design specifications and see where your column is operating.

Table 1: Distillation Column Data

Feed Temperature (C)

Feed Pressure (kPa)19.0
Top Pressure (kPa)6.5
Bottom Pressure (kPa)15.8
Reflux Ratio12.2
Feed Stage9
Number of Actual Trays31
Tray Efficiency78%
Diameter (m)1.2
Length (m)22
Condenser Heat Duty (MJ/h)-2726
Reboiler Heat Duty (MJ/h)2679
Acrylic Acid Purity99.9%

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