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Simulation and Optimization of a Triple-Effect Distillation

Jalel Belghaieb*, Wael Aboussaoud, Mohamed-Ismael Abdo, Nejib Hajji

Energy and Environment Research Unit, National Engineering School of Gabes, Gabes
University, Tunisia
ENIG, Rue Omar Ibn El Khattab - 6029 Gabs Tunisie

This work is dedicated to the optimization of the production of a triple-effect distillation

unit belonging to an industrial phosphoric acid factory. At first, the operating principle
of the distillation process is presented and the technical data necessary for the
simulation is extracted. Then the simulation of the desalination process is conducted and
validated by industrial data. Various possibilities of optimization are considered for the
production of distilled water by means of a hot sea water source, the thermo-
compression of the vapour and the recycling of a fraction of the produced vapour are
studied. Finally we proceed to the design of the various necessary equipments as
well as the economic evaluation of the desalination process.

1. Introduction
Industrial applications suffer from a shortage of fresh water and this trend is expected to
increase in the future. Among various desalination processes, the multi effect distillation
(MED) desalination process is a thermal process and is a major source of fresh water
around the world (El-Dessouky, 2002). Multi effect distillation is widely used in
industrial processes to recover solvents and to concentrate solutions. In the field of sea
water desalination, multistage flash (MSF) is the most widely used process (Hawaidi,
2009). Nevertheless, MED process is more and more attractive due to improvements
that have been achieved in the evaporators conception and design. Hence, falling film
distillers permit the enhancement of the heat transfer and reduce the scaling problem
compared to submerged tube evaporators. Fine modeling and simulation of the water
desalination allow better design, operation and process understanding from which an
optimal operating conditions and advanced control of the process are reached. Several
papers investigated simulation, design and optimization of the thermal desalination
processes. Hamed (1992) analyzed the performance of a ME desalination system.
Impact of different process variables on the performance of the MED system as a
number of effects, TBT, inlet seawater temperature and the amount of product are
Ettouney (1999) developed a computer package for design and simulation of single
effect evaporator (SEE), multistage flash and multi effect evaporator (MEE). Al-Sahali
(2007) discussed three thermal desalination processes with focus on design, energy and
economic aspects. Design features include performance ration, specific heat transfer
area and system dimensions. Khademi (2009) conducted the simulation and the
optimization of a six-effect evaporator. They study the effect of the feed mass flow rate,
feed temperature and condenser pressure on the ratio of produced vapor to consumed
steam (GOR), consumed steam and produced distilled water. Piacenti (2010)
investigated MEE process improvement by thermo-economic-aided optimization of a
new system and the increase of thermal efficiency for existing system by a pinch-based
plant retrofit.
This study focuses of the simulation of an existing three-effect evaporator desalination
system and its validation by industrial data. The paper presents the optimization of the
production of distilled water by heating the sea water, the use of a great amount of
driving vapor thermo-compression of the vapor and recycling a fraction of produced

2. Process description
The distillers used in the power station are of the MED TVC type which combines the
technology of multiple effect distillation and vapor thermo-compression. This
combination leads to a significant decrease in energy consumption. The desalination
system of the phosphoric acid factory is a vacuum station consisting of triple effect
stages. Each stage comprises a heat exchanger and a flash tank with the sea water
coming from the pre-heaters. Moreover, a scale inhibitor is used, which plays the role of
a precipitation retarder which increases the duration of the units operation cycle. The
effluent is fed into the plant through a filter to a balance tank. The system produces
21.7 t/h of distilled water. The sizes of the heat exchangers and the pre-heater are shown
in Table 1.

Table1: Size of heat exchangers and pre-heaters.

Evaporator Pre-heater
Tube diameter (mm) 16 19
Tube length (m) 2.642 2.64
Number of tubes 4370 114
Material Cu-Ni 90-10 Titan
Surface (m2 580.34* 17.96*
*Per cell

3. Process simulation
In what follows, Aspen Plus software is used to simulate the triple-effect desalination
process. The simulation results provide the flowrates of the heating and the produced
vapor, the rate of vaporization per cell and the production of distilled water. For the
simulation, the evaporators are regarded as flashes and the condensers as heaters. The
rate of entrainment of the thermo-compressor of the studied unit is 1.52. We must
provide dimensions, and the overall heat transfer coefficient. The thermodynamic model
used for the sea water is based on the NRTL equation but takes into account interactions
of the electrolytic type. Thermodynamic calculations in the gas phase were carried out
using the Redlich-Kwong equation of state (Aspen Plus User Guide, 2000). The
flowsheet of the distillation unit is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The triple effect distillation process flow sheet.

The simulation data is given in Table 2.

Table 2: Industrial data for triple effect distillation process simulation.

Temperature (C) Pressure (bar) Flow (t/h)
Driving vapor 170 5 3
Sea water towards condenser 28 3 220
Sea water for one cell 20
Hot cell 60
Intermediate cell 50
Cold cell 40

The validation of the proposed simulation of the MED process is conducted by

comparing the simulation results with industrial data (see Table 3). It shows that the
results given by the simulation software are in good agreement with the data.

Table3: Simulation validation by industrial data.

Industrial data Simulation
Cell temperature (C) 60/50/40 60/50/40
Pressure (mbar) - 199/123/74*
Heating vapor (t/h) - 7.560/6.493/6.017*
Generated vapor (t/h) - 6.493/6.017/6.164*
Global vaporization ratio (%) - 32.47/30.08/30.82*
Total production (t/h) 21.70 21.67
*Per effect
4. Optimization of the industrial triple effect distillation process
The simulation will then be used for the optimization of the MED system. We note first
that to check the actual areas in use in the existing process, we proceed to the evaluation
of the pre-heating, evaporation and condenser areas in use actually. This analysis is
done by the derivation of the global heat transfer coefficients in pre-heating and
evaporating areas using the procedure developed by El-Dessouky (2000). Table 4 shows
the available and used areas in the desalination station.
The analysis of the results demonstrates that the installed heat transfer surfaces are over
required areas and allow improvement of the distillated water production while keeping
the same system.

Table 4: Available and used heat transfer surfaces in triple effect distillation process.

Effects Condenser
Available surface (m2) 598.3/598.3/598.3 71.84
Used surface (m2) 503.06/236.96/234.81 55.00
Ratio of used area (%) 84.01/39.6/39.24 76.56
*Per effect

It arises from the analysis of this table that the installed heat transfer surfaces are higher
than necessary for the system in its cycle end of exploitation before stop for cleaning in
current operating state of the unit.
4.1 Effect of sea water temperature
Here we conduct the simulation using pre-heated sea water from 28 C, its actual
temperature, to 39 C. The effect of feed temperature on consumed steam and produced
distilled water is shown in Table 5. The Increase in feed temperature from 28 C to 39
C increases produced distilled water from 21.7t/h to 22.99t/h. In fact, it leads to an
increase in the fluid temperature entering the flash tank of the first effect and therefore
more vapor is generated. Hence, increasing the feed temperature from 28 to 39C can
increase produced distilled water by 5.9%.

Table 5: Results of the simulation with sea water temperature of 39C.

Effect 1 Effect 2 Effect 3
Temperature (C) 60 50 40
Generated vapor (t/h) 6.67 6.44 6.90
Vaporization ratio (%) 30.31 29.26 29.94
Distilled water (t/h) 22.99
4.2 Study of the use of thermal compression
To improve the produced distilled water of the desalination unit, it is necessary to
increase the flow of the driving vapor currently used (3t/h). After having contacted
various suppliers such as Transvac, Croll, Schutte & Koerting, the best rate of drive
suggested is of 0.615. For the continuation of this work, we will consider this new rate
of drive which leads to a driving vapor flow of 4 and 5t/h. If one uses a driving vapor of
6t/h, one exceeds the surface available of the first cell which is of 598 m2. Therefore this
case is not to be considered. The effect of the addition of a new thermo-compressor
using as a driving vapor the production of the first effect and aspired vapor a fraction of
the vapor produced by the third effect (the optimal flow is of 7t/h and is fixed by the use
of 90 % of the installed surface of the second effect). This requires the installation of
two thermo-compressors, one which injects vapor which enters the tubes of the first
effect and another which is at the base of the re-injection of part of the vapor produced
in effect 3 towards the entry of cell 2. This last effect has a pressure of 0.074 bars. The
optimal quantity of vapor to be injected is equal to 7t/h which is fixed by the use of 90
% of the installed surface of the second effect. The results of the simulations for a flow
rate of driving vapor of 4 and 5t/h are reported in Table 6.

Table 6: Results of the simulations with principal driving vapors of 4 and 5t/h.
Driving vapor (t/h) 4 5
Average rate vaporization (%) 30.01 29.94
Production (t/h) 34.03 39.73
Ratio of used area (%) 73/78/78* 92/88/88*
*Per effect

It arises from the analysis of this table that increasing the rate of driving vapor generates
a significant increase in the production of distilled water. In addition, the diagnosis of
the heat-transferring surfaces shows that the current exchangers of the distiller can
handle the new productions. The results show that the use of thermal compression in
the case of 4t/h increase the production of distilled water by 56.82% and 83.09% for a
driving vapor for the first thermo-compressor of 5t/h. The production of distilled water
is much more significant if compression is carried out using a driving vapor resulting
from effect 1 and like vapor of drive part of the vapor produced by effect 3. This vapor
re-injection is used as vapor of attack for cell 2. At the tube side entry of effect 2, the
quantity of vapor of attack is the sum of the quantity of vapor produced by effect 1 and
the quantity of re-injected vapor. This leads to the evaporation of a greater quantity of
sea water returning to the effect 2 and the production of a more significant quantity of
vapor. This vapor will go through the tubes of effect 3 and thus will evaporate in its
turn a great quantity of sea water which is sprayed on the tubes.
In addition, we proceed to the design of the necessary added equipments and the
economic evaluation of the necessary investment and the economic profit. This allows
the derivation of the payback period for this alternative. The results show that this
period is very short, namely 214 days.

This work is devoted to the improvement of the rate of distilled water produced by a
triple effect desalination station belonging to a phosphoric acid plant. After having
collected the physicochemical and technical data of the process, we carried out the
diagnosis of the existing exchangers in the evaporators of the unit in order to make sure
that they allow the heat exchange required by the suggested improvements. The
simulation of the process made it possible to study the various cases of improvement in
the production of the unit while respecting available evaporators surfaces. Various
alternatives were considered which are based on the recovery of the sea water coming
out from the condenser harnesses turbine generator, the thermo-compression with a
higher flow of driving vapor and the re-injection of a fraction of the vapor produced by
the last effect into the remaining effects using a thermo-compressor. After designing the
heat exchangers, we studied the economic profitability of the project to help us make a
decision for its industrial realization. The results obtained showed that the actual
production of the unit can be increased from 21.7t/h to 39.73t/h, which represents an
increase by 83.09%. In addition, the necessary investment has a payback period of 214
days which is in favor of industrial realization.

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