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Distributor design and testing

A new main fractionator designed to separate a range of feed streams incorporates multiple layers of structured packing and a slurry section
Deepak Dhabalia and Mark Pilling Sulzer Chemtech Inc

hen a large US Gulf Coast FCC unit was revamped, it required a new main fractionator. The new column was 22ft (6.7m) in diameter and comprised of ten beds with fractionation and pumparound sections for HFCC naphtha, jet fuel, LCO and HCO, plus a slurry pumparound section. All sections other than the slurry section were packed with structured packing and fed by Sulzer VEP gravity flow distributors. The slurry section used the proprietary Mellagrid structured packing and was fed by a Sulzer VES distributor. This combination of grid packing and v-notch distributor is commonly used for slurry sections because of its resistance to fouling. The design of distributors in any fouling service is always a balance between resistance to fouling and distribution quality. For resistance to fouling, flow orifices typically need to be large and preferably elevated off the floor of the distributor, while good distribution quality requires uniform wetting of the packing (ie, a high enough drip point density) as well as controlled momentum near the orifices to ensure equal flows. Adequate liquid head in the distributor plays a significant role in dissipating momentum and minimising the effects of flow anomalies throughout the distributor. Ideally, a distributor with large orifices, a moderate drip point density and a moderate head level would provide an efficient, foulingresistant design. However, a large number of big holes in a distributor generally results in a low liquid head, which typically means low distribution quality. As a result, the proper design for fouling-resistant distributors often requires a compromise between hole size, distribution density and acceptable distribution quality. Since a fouled distributor is generally inoperable,

resistance to fouling usually takes precedence over anything more than adequate distribution quality. A good practice for most distributor designs is to perform a flow test prior to installation in order to verify distribution quality. A simple hydraulic check at the manufacturing facility can help identify potential problems that can be easily corrected prior to actual tower installation. Although these types of problem are relatively rare, when a problem is found during a flow test the benefits are tremendous compared with finding a problem during startup or subsequent operation.

Distributor design and testing

Slurry services typically use v-notch gravity distributors to handle the slurry and extremely high liquid rates. Sulzers general recommendation for this service is a VES distributor. This distributor has a main channel-parting box to calm the initial liquid feed and then proportionally distribute the liquid to a series of individual troughs (or arm channels) for final distribution. Liquid leaves these troughs through a number of v-notch orifices located on the lower portion of the vertical side panels. Liquid flowing out of these v-notches impinges onto a vertical baffle plate located outside the troughs. The baffle serves to disperse the liquid into an even flow and then directs it onto the packing immediately below. Since the baffle provides additional redistribution of the liquid from the troughs, the troughs can be designed with fewer and, more importantly, larger, more fouling-resistant flow orifices. Distributors of this type are normally designed with a distribution density of approximately 4 pts/ft2 (40 pts/m2), depending on the minimum

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Figure 1 Typical VES distributor

slot size at the bottom and the minimum head requirements. V-notch distributors generally have the maximum possible hole size for resistance to fouling, so they usually do not have high liquid heads in the distributor channels. A typical liquid head level in a v-notch distributor is 13in (2575mm) over the entire operating range, while a more standard orifice distributor will maintain a head of 312in (75300mm). Since liquid head above the orifice is a major component of flow uniformity, the lower head distributors typically have a lower-quality distribution than higher head designs. As a result, careful design of the feeds, main channel and troughs is mandatory to ensure the liquid head, and resulting liquid distribution, is uniform across the entire distributor. Based on the diameter and flow rate to be handled in this column, a dual main channel design was selected. This is similar to the single main channel design shown in Figure 1, except that it uses two parallel main channels rather than a single channel on the centreline. Another common feature with large-diameter, high-liquid distributors is the use of smaller channels within the trough that transport liquid delivered to the centre of a channel or trough laterally out towards the ends. This alleviates much of the horizontal momentum in the lower portion of the trough and leads to better flow quality from the trough orifices. This particular design initially used a perforated v-shaped channel along the main channel and the arm troughs to improve flow characteristics.

are based on the liquid head measured at each end of the trough. For larger-diameter distributors, other random points in the arm trough at the centre (close to the main channel) are tested as well. For this particular design, it was agreed to take measurements at 60 locations on each side of the distributor, meaning a total of 120 measurements. These tests are performed for all design rates, including maximum and minimum. The design rates for this application are shown as follows:
Operating range of VES distributor Minimum ow 1985 gpm (451 m3/hr) Design ow 3971 gpm (902 m3/hr) Maximum ow 4523 gpm (1027 m3/hr)

Distributor ow test requirements

Sulzers standard test criteria for all distributors

During testing, these measurements are checked for standard deviation, where a coefficient of variation, or Cv, is calculated. Most well-designed distributors for non-fouling services can achieve Cvs well below 10% for design conditions. Turndown conditions typically have lower head levels and achieve Cv values near 10%. Acceptance criteria for these distributors are generally 510%, depending on the flow rates and service. As previously mentioned, the VES distributor used in the slurry section maintains a much lower liquid head, so it will have higher Cv values compared to more standard distributors. Acceptance criteria for this distributor are therefore typically higher. Sulzers acceptance criteria for VES distributors range from 15 20%, depending on the degree of fouling involved in the process. These, like other Cv criteria, are empirically derived, based mostly on experience rather than theory. Experience with VES distributors in FCC slurry service has shown that the combination of this foulingresistant design along with a Cv of 1520% has always provided successful designs in actual operation. Based on these factors, the acceptance criteria established with distributor designs for this tower were:

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Design & max ow Minimum ow

VEP 6% 10%

VES 15% 20%

The standard VEP distributors for beds 2 through 10 were tested and achieved Cv values easily within the acceptance criteria (<5%). The VES distributor achieved Cv values of 9.3% at maximum rates, 8.9% at design rates and 11% at turndown rates. Although the test results were within the acceptable criteria, observations during the testing led to some questions about the VES distributors performance, specifically: The pre-distributor channel inside the main channel appeared to be causing a lot of turbulence, which was adversely affecting the flow to the lower arm troughs There appeared to be excess velocity in the interior portions of the arm troughs. Also, the liquid level at the end of each trough was high, while the liquid level in the middle of the trough was lower by as much as 0.5in (12mm). In view of these observations, it was agreed that some modifications should be made to the distributor to try and improve its performance.

Proposed solution
In identification of the observed performance problems (for example, turbulence and excess velocity), the proposed solution included: The problem with the main channel was due to a lack of clearance between the feed piping and the sides of the pre-distributor channel. This created a source of turbulence that adversely affected distribution through the main channel guide box. This was addressed by modifying the pre-distributor channel so that this clearance was increased to alleviate the turbulent flow area The problem in the arm troughs was due to the perforation pattern of their pre-distributor channels. The perforation area was too large and did not effectively dissipate the energy of the feed from the main channel. In order to solve this problem, a secondary arm trough was placed inside the existing channel to effectively add another stage of distribution within the main arm trough. The distributor was modified in place on the flow test stand and a quick flow test was conducted at maximum flow rates to evaluate the changes. During this test, the following was observed:

The modification of the pre-distributor channel in the main channel helped to reduce the turbulence, but there was still some room for improvement The secondary arm trough inside main arm trough did not help as much as expected. The purpose of this additional baffle was to reduce turbulence at the feed point and ensure uniform liquid flow throughout the arm trough. On the contrary, it was noticed that the liquid flowed mostly over the end of the trough and that very little liquid was flowing over the side portions. One of the difficulties in the evaluation of this distributor test was the fact that the dual main channels and the presence of pre-distributor channels limited the physical access to the liquid level in the troughs. Hence, although it appeared that levels and velocities were varying within the troughs, it was physically impossible to measure these factors. The initial test method for the flow test was done by measuring liquid head levels. This is Sulzers default test and provides a good, quick test to find obvious flow problems. However, due to the difficulties in measuring levels along the entire length of the troughs, it was decided to perform more extensive liquid flow rate measurement tests to further evaluate the modified distributor. For this test, 154 random point samples out of 1116 total drip points were measured, representing 10% of the drip points plus a few others to get a thorough representation across the entire distributor. Prior to this test, two final modifications were made to the distributor: Although the modified pre-distributor inside the main channel appeared to be adequate, it was decided to replace the existing v-shaped channel with a rectangular shape that is more typical of what is used for more standard distributors. The perforation pattern for this design was the same as the previous channel to maintain the same resistance to fouling Some perforations were added to the secondary pre-distributor trough so that liquid can flow through the perforation as well as over the side of the baffle. Some small momentum breaking plates were also installed within the secondary trough to break some of the lateral liquid momentum to further help in reducing velocity in the arm trough. Flow testing of the modified distributor using

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random points yielded excellent statistical results as well as observed flow patterns within the distributor itself. Specifically: The new pre-distributor channel inside the main channel helped to reduce the momentum and turbulence The modified pre-distributor troughs in the main arm troughs significantly reduced the velocity through the arm troughs, creating a uniform liquid stream for final distribution to the packing. The statistical flow test results of the VES distributor were as follows:
Maximum ow Design Minimum ow VES Cv VES Cv (actual) (specication) 6.2% 15% 8.8% 15% 11.9% 20%

The final modifications are easily within the design criteria, and the Cvs at maximum and design rates are below 10%, which is generally acceptable for nearly all distillation services. Considering that this is mainly a heat-transfer application in a difficult fouling service, these distributor Cv values can be considered outstanding and this distributor is fully expected to perform well in the actual application.

should be designed with enough clearance from the feed pipes to prevent high velocities within the pre-distributor. A good rule of thumb is to make the distributor channel width 1.5 times the pipe diameter. For all tests with visual access, it is important to pay close attention and review not only the statistical data but actively witness the test to observe various flow patterns and possible non-uniformities. The liquid distributor is often considered to be the most important part of a packed bed design. A good distributor cannot make a bad packing perform well, but a bad distributor can certainly make a good packing perform poorly. By starting with a good distributor design and taking these other factors into account, an engineer can be assured of providing the best possible device for the actual installation.

Lesson learned
For any VES or slurry section distributor having moderate-to-high liquid flow rates, it is recommended to have two-stage distribution with a secondary pre-distributor arm trough inside the primary arm trough. Baffle plates may be required to prevent excess lateral velocities in these troughs. When using designs with pre-distributor channels, liquid rate flow tests in conjunction with the standard head level tests are recommended. The pre-distributor for the main channel

Deepak Dhabalia is the engineering group leader at Sulzer Chemtech, looking after the design of all types of mass transfer component in engineering and operations since 2001. Dhabalia holds BS degree in production engineering from India. Email: Mark Pilling is the manager of technology for Sulzer Chemtech USA, where he oversees mass transfer equipment development and specialises in applications for various process technologies. Pilling is a registered professional engineer and holds a BS degree in chemical engineering from University of Oklahoma. Email:

More articles from: Sulzer Chemtech USA Inc More articles from the following category: Mass Transfer & Separation Revamps, Shutdowns and Turnarounds

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