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Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307

Published online 22 August 2007 in Wiley InterScience
( DOI:10.1002/apj.023

Research Article
Optimize distillation column design for improved reliability
in operation and maintenance
Karl Kolmetz,1 * Wai Kiong Ng,1 Siang Hua Lee,1 Tau Yee Lim,1 Daniel R. Summers2 and Cyron Anthony Soyza3
Sulzer Chemtech, Regional Headquarters, 10 Benoi Sector, SG-629845, Singapore
Sulzer Chemtech, 4019 S. Jackson Avenue, US-Tulsa, OK 74107, USA
Phoenix Training and Development Centre, Johor Bahru, Malaysia

Received 24 June 2005; Accepted 20 September 2006

ABSTRACT: A distillation tower design is normally made in two steps; a process design, followed by a mechanical
design. The purpose of the process design is to calculate the required stream flows and number of required theoretical
stages. Required steam flows could include reflux rate, side draws, and the heat duties (number of pump arounds and
the condenser and reboiler). The purpose of the mechanical design is to select the tower internals, column diameter
and height.
The process and mechanical designs can be completed very quickly utilizing cook book procedures that many
Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) firms have established. Often the cook book designs can be
optimized for improved profitability, operations and maintenance.
The best way to review profitability is the life cycle cost, which is the initial capital cost of the plant along with the
first 10 years operating and maintenance cost. The life cycle cost includes a reliability factor, which is very important
in designing any process plant equipment. Improved reliability has a very large impact on return on investment (ROI).
Several factors should be considered when designing distillation equipment;

1. Correct distillation equipment for process conditions

2. Correct equipment selection for expected run length
3. Correct process control strategy to achieve stable operations
4. Fouling/corrosion/polymerization potential
5. Thermal stability, chemical stability and safety
6. Maintenance reliability, accessibility and simplicity of repair
7. Evaluation of the most cost effective solution for minimum life cycle cost

This review will include general distillation design guidelines applicable to any process along with specifics for the
natural gas processing, refining, petrochemicals, and the oleo chemicals industries. 2007 Curtin University of
Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

KEYWORDS: distillation column; maintenance reliability

INTRODUCTION cost of the plant along with the first 10 years operating
and maintenance cost. The life cycle cost should include
There are many separation processes and each one has a reliability factor, which is very important in designing
its best application. They include distillation, crystal- any process plant equipment, reactors or separation
lization, membrane, and fixed bed absorption systems.
equipment. Improved reliability has a very large impact
Occasionally the best system may be a combination of
these systems. on return on investment (ROI). Many life cycle cost
The choice of the best application should be based on only review energy, but not solvent, adsorbent, or
the life cycle cost. The life cycle cost is the initial capital catalyst cost because of accounting rules and this can
lead to skewed economic decisions.
*Correspondence to: Karl Kolmetz, Sulzer Chemtech Pte Ltd., Distillation may be the most economical and is the
Regional Headquarters, 10 Benoi Sector, SG-629845, Singapore. most utilized globally to obtain improved purity prod-

Prepared for, 2nd Best Practices in Process Plant Management

ucts. Distillation is the separation of key components
Nikko Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 1415, 2005. by the difference in their relative volatility, or boiling
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

points. It can also be called fractional distillation or frac- fouling service because it has no horizontal surfaces,
tionation. Distillation is favored over other separation but if the process has high maintenance concerns,
techniques such as crystallization, membranes or fixed random packing may be chosen to reduce the life cycle
bed systems when; cost. An example of this is caustic towers in Ethylene
1. The relative volatility is greater that 1.2,
2. Products are thermally stable,
3. Large rates are desired,
4. No extreme corrosion, precipitation or sedimentation General rules of thumb
issues are present,
5. No explosion issues are present, The first general rule of thumb is to review the common
6. Low scale up cost factors capacity can be doubled industry practice for your particular process. This will
for about 1.5 additional cost, give you a guide in which to start your selection process,
7. Suitable for heat integration. but in a competitive environment the lowest initial cost
may be the most widely utilized, but may not be the best
overall option. Rules of thumb will have exceptions and
may only apply about 90% of the time.
FOR THE PROCESS CONDITIONS Packing rules of thumb
Packing should be utilized when;
There are many types of processes that are grouped
together and called distillation. Most have similarities, 1. Compounds are temperature sensitive
but some have noticeable differences. A partial list of 2. Pressure drop is important (vacuum service)
the distillation grouping includes; 3. Liquid loads are low
4. Towers are small in diameter
1. Distillation
5. Highly corrosive service (use plastic or carbon)
2. Absorption
3. Stripping 6. The system is foaming
4. Extractive distillation 7. The ratio of tower diameter to random packing size
5. Reactive distillation is greater than 10.
6. Azeotropic distillation
7. Batch distillation Tray rules of thumb
Trays should be utilized when;
There are several choices of distillation equipment for
each of these operations. The choice of which to uti- 1. Compounds containing solids or foulants
lize depends on the (1) pressure, (2) fouling potential, 2. Many internal transitions
(3) liquid to vapor density ratio, (4) liquid loading, and 3. Liquid loads are high
most important (5) life cycle cost. Distillation equip- 4. Lack of experience in the service
ment includes many categories of equipment. The two 5. Vessel wall needs periodic inspection
major categories are trays and packing, but each of these 6. Multiple liquid phases including water
categories has many divisions.
Tray divisions include; Tower rules of thumb
1. Maintain 1.2 m at the top for vapor disengagement,
1. Baffle trays 2. Maintain 2 m at the bottom for liquid level and
2. Dual flow trays reboiler return,
3. Convential trays 3. Limit tower heights to 60 m because of wind load and
4. High capacity trays foundation concerns,
5. Multiple downcomer trays 4. The length to diameter ratio should be less than 30,
6. System limit trays 5. Reflux drums should be horizontal with a liquid
residence time of 10 min.,
Packing divisions include; 6. Gas/liquid separators are vertical,
1. Grid packing 7. If the reflux drum has a second liquid phase, such as
2. Random packing water, the second phase should have a linear velocity
3. Convential structured packing of 150 mm/sec and not smaller than 400 mm,
4. High capacity structured packing 8. Utilize a water boot for small amounts of water
accumulating in a reflux drum
There are both process and economic arguments 9. Optimum pressure vessel length to diameter ratio is 3
for the best choices in equipment selection. Typically 10. Choose materials of construction to reduce corrosion
structured packing is better than random packing for issues,
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj
296 K. KOLMETZ ET AL. Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering

11. Maximize operating flexibility for seasonal or market Liquid loading

In low liquid loaded systems packing may be the best
choice because of the mass transfer characteristics of
Pressure packing. The mass transfer in packing applications takes
place on a thin film of liquid that is spread over the
Pressure normally has a large effect on the parameters surface area of the packing. If the liquid rate is high
of surface tension and density ratios. Density ratio is this boundary layer will increase, reducing the mass
the ratio difference between the vapor and the liquid transfer. Trays should be considered by high liquid
densities. Structured packing can be utilized if the loaded applications.
density ratios are large. If the density ratio is below 50, In low liquid loaded systems trays can have high
a back mixing effect can occur, where the liquid carries residence times leading to undesired affects such as
the vapor downward. The resultant stage efficiency fouling, discoloration, polymerization, and sedimenta-
(HETP) in a packed column is lower than expected and tion. In addition trays in low liquid loaded systems have
trays may be the most economical solution. Both packed difficulty maintaining a good weir loading and distribu-
and trayed columns have reduced capacity factors as the tion across the tray, resulting in lower than expected
pressure increases. tray efficiencies.

Fouling potential Life cycle cost

Designing mass transfer equipment for fouling service Life cycle cost should include total operating cost for
requires first an understanding of the fouling mech- the first 10 years of operation. Accounting rules which
anism, the process in which the fouling occurs, and list some items as capital cost and other items as
behavior of the process when the fouling is present. operating expense need to be totaled or a skewed life
An understanding of these items needs to be developed cycle cost can be generated. A partial list would include;
in advance of designing mass transfer equipment for 1. Capital
fouling service. 2. Catalyst
The challenges of operating fouling columns can 3. Solvents
result in; 4. Energy
5. Maintenance
1. Increase energy consumption due to heat transfer and
6. Industry average on stream factor (95% 20 days
efficiency issues.
per year)
2. Reduced column capacity, which may lead to pro-
duction loses. For distillation the largest life cycle cost would
3. Increased down time for cleaning and disposing of be energy and maintenance concerns. Distillation is
fouling wastes typically the single largest consumer of utilities in a
4. Potential need for the use of chemical additives chemical plant or refinery, and also the largest producer
of finished product in most facilities. For energy cost a
review of tray and packing efficiencies is warranted. For
Vapor to liquid density ratio maintenance cost a review of reliability and simplicity
is warranted.
When structured packing was first introduced, the
vapor to liquid density ratio was not understood, and
structured packing was applied in areas of low vapor CORRECT EQUIPMENT SELECTION FOR
to liquid density with unexpected results. In one case EXPECTED RUN LENGTH
an Alky Unit DeIsoButanizer was revamped from trays
to rings with less performance, the original trays were Hydrocarbon producers are exploring avenues to extend
then reinstalled. Several propylene and ethylene splitters the on-stream time between outages for maintenance.
were revamped to structured packing, and then had trays Key equipment that can determine the end of run
re-installed. includes: catalyst life, cyclone erosion, and compressor
Trayed column are also affected by the vapor to and tower fouling. Critical equipment that has been
liquid density ratio. The down comer capacity is directly shown to be a limiting factor can be duplicated to
affected by the ability of the liquid vapor mixture ability extend run length: for example parallel pumps, reactors
to separate into their respective phases. At low vapor and reboilers. This is a successful method to extend
to liquid density ratios this can be difficult if the down on-stream time, though it is expensive and in fact, at
comers are not sized properly. times cost prohibitive. Incorporating design guidelines
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj

that increase the on-stream time of the key pieces b. Plugging

of equipment is a better economic decision for most c. Fabrication mishaps
plants. d. Feed entry problems
Currently refiners are planning 4-year run lengths and e. Damage
ethylene producers are getting greater than 5-year run f. Poor hole pattern
lengths. These targets present challenges for distillation g. Poor irrigation quality
column design. Potential problem areas include refin-
ing vacuum wash oil beds, ethylene plant quench and
saturator towers, and butadiene and other polymer pro- 4. Intermediate draws
ducing distillation columns. Each of these applications a. Leakage at draw
has some common characteristics. A review of success- b. Restriction of vapor choking of draw line
ful and not so successful designs can help develop key c. Plugging
design criteria. Design guidelines developed from suc-
cessful and not so successful applications can improve 5. Assembly mishaps
the on-stream time of each of the applications. a. Packing liquid distributors
b. Packing assembly
c. Tray panels
Industry review of tower incidents d. Internal misorientation at feeds and draws

One way to approach the expected run length issue is to

review the tower incidents that have been reported in the Recent list of refinery fractionator
industry. There are over 900 published cases of tower
incidents in the literature. Attached is a list of tower
incidents that was found in the literature. (1) Listed are
the top five issues in distillation malfunctions. A recent list of refinery fractionator malfunctions was
developed. (2) There are over 400 published cases of
1. Fouling, plugging and coking issues refinery tower incidents. They included;
2. Tower bottoms and reboiler return issues
3. Packing liquid distributors issue
4. Intermediate draws 1. Vacuum towers 86
5. Assembly mishaps 2 Atmospheric crude towers 45
3. Debutanizer towers 37
Below is an explanation of each item. 4. FCC main fractionators 33
5. DeEthanizer towers 23
1. Fouling, plugging and coking issues 6. DePropanizer towers 22
a. Coking 7. Alky main fractionators 17
b. Precipitation salts 8 Coker main fractionators 15
c. Scale, corrosion products 9. Naphtha splitters 11
d. Solids in feeds
Fouling, plugging and coking issues are typically
found The main point here is there are plenty of published
a. Packing beds and distributors cases, and it is better to learn from others mistakes.
b. Trays, active areas and down comers The largest number of cases is for the vacuum tower.
c. Draw lines The top causes of vacuum tower malfunctions include;
d. Instrument lines
e. Feed lines
1. Damage 27
2. Tower bottoms and reboiler return issues 2. Coking 21
a. High liquid levels 3. Intermediate draws 17
b. Impingement by vapor inlets 4. Misleading measurements 10
c. Vapor maldistribution 5. Plugging 9
d. Water induced pressure surges 6. Installation mishaps 9
e. Leaking reboiler draw 7. Abnormal operation (start up, shut down) 9
f. Gas entrainment in liquid bottoms 8. Maldistribution 6
9. Weeping 6
3. Packing liquid distributors issues
10. Condenser 4
a. Distributor overflow
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj
298 K. KOLMETZ ET AL. Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering

The top causes of damage in vacuum tower include Olefins unit application example

An example of the phenomena by one of the authors

1. Water induced pressure surges 9 was in an ethylene furnace steam drum. Because the
2. Insufficient mechanical strength 5 steam drum has a low level shutdown, which also shut
3. Broken nozzles or headers of spray distributors 4 down the furnace, the operations group wanted to run
4. High bottoms level 3 the drum at a high liquid level to allow increased the
5. Packing fires 3 operator response time. Operations decided to keep the
drum level at 80%.
This drum operated at a 100 bar system pressure
A lesson to be learned is that possibly one third of the
which has resulted in very high temperatures. Opera-
causes of damage in vacuum towers can be prevented by
tions noted that there was a loss of efficiency in the
design and operating procedure that adequately prevent
steam turbines that utilized the high pressure steam.
water from entering the tower. A joint design/operations
Tests were run to determine the carry over of the steam
hazard and operability review (HAZOP) should focus
drums by measuring the sodium levels in the steam. It
on the listed potential problem areas.
was determined by the sodium test, that the drums were
full at 80% as verified by the photographs (Fig. 1) of
the tide marks in the steam drums at the next down turn.
CORRECT PROCESS CONTROL STRATEGY TO The steam drum level was lowered to a measured 65%
ACHIEVE STABLE OPERATIONS to reduce liquid carryover.

Pressure control challenges

Because humans are less sensitive to pressure than Refinery unit application example
temperature, we measure pressure in large units. In the
ideal gas law PV = nRT, pressure is measured in units It is not unusual for operation to run a piece of
of 1 bar and temperature in units of degrees Kelvin, equipment at higher levels if there is a low level
therefore temperature measures will be much more shutdown, or if the process feeds a multistage pump.
accurate than pressure measurements. Control strategies Caution needs to be taken and this phenomena need to
that rely strongly on pressure will be less stable than be understood or a tower reboiler return can be blowing
those that rely on temperature. into the liquid level, resulting in entrainment to the first
Of the 37 listed DeButanizer malfunctions, the most tray. If there is a steam sparger in the tower bottoms as
common malfunctions are widely different from those in found in refinery atmospheric crude towers, care must
vacuum, crude and FCC fractionators. Ten of the thirty- be taken to insure the sparger is above the liquid level.
seven were in process control, and five of them were In one example a refinery atmospheric crude tower
with pressure and condenser controls. The challenge of was revamped and the steam sparger was lowered.
DeButanizer condenser is with the noncondensables that During crude feed changes the tower bottoms level can
the previous towers might not totally remove. be higher than normal resulting in the steam sparger

Level instrumentation challenges

Level instrumentation is much more difficult than many

people perceive. Acceptable industry standard methods
have greater than 10% inaccurateness. This is due to
density differences in the tower bottoms and the level
leg or sight glass. The tower bottoms will be frothy and
at a higher temperate than the level leg. Because the
principle of level measurement is Bernoullis Equation
(density times gravitational force times height) the
density has a direct effect on the measurement. The
density is a function of the temperature and the froth
aeration, both of which are reduced in the sight glass
and level leg. For a hot system the level in the tower
can be as much as 10% higher, and for a cycrogenic Figure 1. Picture of water mark on the steam
system the level can be lower than the sight glass due drum. This figure is available in colour online at
to the temperature effect.
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj

Figure 3. Example of Trays in Fouling Service. This figure is

available in colour online at

Figure 2. Steam Turbine Fouling. This figure is available in

colour online at of trough distributors are recommended over pan type
being beneath the bottoms level. When this occurred, Trays
the diesel draw became dark, resulting in lost product. The industry prefers trays in fouling service because of
the long history of success trays have had in fouling
service applications. The first continuous distillation
FOULING/CORROSION/POLYMERIZATION column with bubble cap trays was developed in 1813
POTENTIAL and structured packing was developed in 1964. The
database and application know how is much larger with
The most suitable mass transfer equipment for fouling trays. The best trays to use in fouling services are dual
service may also be the least efficient for mass transfer. flow trays and large fixed opening devices (Fig. 3).
Grid packing and shed decks can handle nearly every Moveable valve trays are less resistant to fouling
known fouling service, but they have low efficiencies because the valves are areas where a polymer can seed
when compared to sieve trays random, and structured and propagate. Solids can pack in small crevices around
packings (Fig. 2). movable valves making them immovable.

Packing Dual flow trays

For packed towers the key fouling factors revolve Dual flow trays are the trays of preference for heavy
around liquid distribution and packing residence time. fouling services, but have low stage efficiency. Dual
The longer the residence times the less suitable. Low- flow trays have no down comers, where products of
pressure drop, smooth surface, low residence time fouling phenomena can accumulate. Stagnation in a
packings perform best in fouling service. The order of down comer, or even on a tray deck, due to back mixing,
preference is: can result in polymer formation.
The vapor and liquid transfers up and down the
column thru the holes on the tray deck. This is an
1. Grid advantage if the fouling is in the vapor state as the under
2. Structured packing side of the tray is continually washed. The continuous
3. Random packing agitation of the liquid on the topside of the trays
combined with continuous underside wetting/washing
action makes this tray suitable for fouling services. The
Packing distributor concerns challenge of the dual flow tray is maldistribution in
larger diameter towers.
In fouling service, distributors are areas where residence Two types of dual flow trays are available; standard
time is increased and fouling phenomena can occur. deck and rippled deck. The standard deck has is a
In high-fouling services trough v-notch or other type flat plate, and the rippled deck has sinusoidal waves.
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj
300 K. KOLMETZ ET AL. Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering

Levelness is of extreme importance to dual flow trays maximum production of mono-ethanolamine from the
because the liquid will migrate to the low level on reactor is typically 70% (Fig. 4). Beyond this maximum
the tray and start channeling. Dual flow trays have a restriction on mono-ethanolamine, the plant may be
tendency for harmonic tray vibrations; rippled decks designed for a wide range in product distribution. This
have an excellent record in fouling service except for means that the plant has very high degree of flexibil-
one recent documented case. ity and production may be adapted to changing market

Fixed opening trays

Ethanolamine distillation general overview
If mass transfer efficiency and fouling resistance are
both needed, then a fixed opening tray such as an SVG Column top operating pressure for the di- and tri-
is the preferred choice. This fixed opening device is a ethanolamine distillation is typically 1 to 2 mbar and
raised opening on the try deck that is sufficiently large column bottom operating pressure is in the range of
to allow vapor to keep the tray deck non fouled, while 10 to 12 mbar. To achieve this low-pressure drop and
providing higher stage efficiency. still retain high separation efficiency at typically very
low specific liquid loads, wire gauze structured packing
is usually specified. Liquid loads can be as low as
Specially chemical application example 0.2 m3 /m2 hr (Fig. 5).
Low pressure drop gauze packings in distillation
Methyl-Meth-Acrylate (MMA) is polymerized into Poly columns create the lowest possible operating temper-
MMA, which is sometime called acrylates; clear plastic ature, preventing deterioration of product quality, while
sheets sometimes used a glass substitute, nail polish reducing column shell diameter. The high separation
and floor wax. In the manufacture of MMA the towers efficiency, leading to;
normally require shutting down about every 6 months
for cleaning. 1. Low energy consumption through reduced reflux
In distillation service where there is a high probabil- rates
ity of polymerization, like MMA, dual flow trays may 2. High product purity, reduced column height
be the trays of choice. The challenge of dual flow trays 3. No organic wastes from the products of polymer-
is maldistribution, the vapor traveling up one side of ization.
the column and the liquid down the opposite side. In a
windstorm the top of a column can move as much as Special design of the top condenser provides ex-
6 inches, and build a hydraulic instability within the col- tremely low-pressure drop of vacuum distillation.
umn, which a dual flow tray cannot correct within itself. Falling film reboilers permit use the of low steam
temperature, avoiding product quality deterioration and
losses as compared to a high heat flux system.
Chemical stability
There are several incident of thermal stability, chemical
stability and safety incidents that need review
In several applications a small amount of the feed
stream can accumulate in a distillation column and have
Thermal stability

Thermal stability is an issue when dealing with many

speciality chemicals. The need to reduce the tower bot-
toms temperature to reduce degradation or polymer-
ization can shift the process design toward packing,
falling film reboilers and special over head condensers
to reduce the tower pressure drop.

Specialty chemical example ethanolamine

distillation general overview

The reaction of ethylene oxide with ammonia renders Figure 4. Ethanolamine production. This figure is available
a mixture of mono-, di-, and tri-ethanol amines. The in colour online at
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj

Several sets of trays, including dual flow trays, have

exhibited a behavior of harmonic vibrations resulting
in failure of the tray decks. Trends and observations
from failure of the tray decks due to harmonic vibrations

Low loadings or turndown conditions

Result in severely cracked & broken decks
Oscillate or Hum at 2040 cycles/second
Will occur regardless of tray strength
First noted by ICI 30+ years ago
Diameters between 7 and 15
Usually effects 1-pass trays

There have been experiences with over eight appli-

cations in the past 5 years where this phenomenon has
Figure 5. Distillation tower. This figure is available in colour At normal operating conditions, a tray has a net
online at
upwards force put on it by the process Fluids. Any hole
or Gap will normally result in vapor escaping rather
chemical stability issues. In an ethylene plant propylene than liquid leaking through the tray.
splitter tower, Methyl acetylene and propadiene can At Turndown however, the net fluid force may be
concentrate in a section of the distillation tower below Neutral. In this case, any disturbance can be magnified
the feed. At high concentrations, above 40%, this by the tray deck.
product can auto decompose resulting in large pressure When these two forces are near to balancing then
increases with potential damage to the equipment. vibration damage can possibly occur. Waddington stated
In butadiene plants a small amount of vinyl acety- it best in 1973, (The) vibration mechanism is due
lene is always present. Extractive distillation is typically to pressure pulsations generated in association with
used to recover the valuable 1, 3 butadiene. If not oper- synchronous bubble formation across a large part of the
ated correctly, the vinyl acetylene can accumulated to tray area. Increasing tray deck (Fig. 7) thickness and/or
an auto ignition level resulting in pressure vessel failure changing material type has not eliminated this problem.
and consequential damages. However, only less damage was noted. After a longer
time span, the trays still can tear themselves apart.
Adding extra beams, shear clips and truss lugs appear
Column safety to have helped one column absorb oscillations. The
theory behind this is that the trays natural frequency
One issue for column safety is packing fires. Packing
was changed.
has been known to ignite and burn when the tower is
opened for maintenance. FRI and others have produced
guidelines for reducing the likelihood of tower packing


Maintenance reliability, accessibility and simplicity of
repair issues many times are developed in actual field
experiences. The field experience is fed back to the tray
designer to incorporate best practices. This is an area
where an experienced team can bring huge value to a

Maintenance reliability tray

vibrations fatigue stress cracking
There is a phenomenon that occurs on tray devices Figure 6. Cracked flow tray. This figure is available in colour
that is quite unusual yet very destructive (Fig. 6). online at
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj
302 K. KOLMETZ ET AL. Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering

Liquid Head


Dry Tray Pressure Drop

Figure 7. Tray deck. This figure is available in colour online


To avoid this phenomenon a Vibration Factor (V/Vc)

Figure 8. Typical new demister pad. This figure is available
is proposed and keeping V/Vc less than 0.8 or greater in colour online at
than 1.6, which has been shown to avoid the vibration

V = Hole Velocity
Vc = 23(LV)HCL FP/(C(V0.5))
C = 2.0 CH gCW/12.0

Most applications will have values much greater than

1.6. This applies to both fixed & movable opening
devices. In other application increasing the tower load-
ing will shift the tray operation away from the vibration
ranges. If that is not possible, a second alternative would
be to replace the trays with reduced open area on the

Demister pads
Figure 9. Typical demister pad issues. This figure is available
Demister pads (Fig. 8) are very easy to design and in colour online at
install, but tend to be high maintenance issue items.
Typical entrainment removal of 99% can be obtained
which list some items as capital cost and other items
with 150 mm (6 inches) of mesh pads. There have
as operating expense need to be totaled or a skewed
been numerous failures in demister pad systems due to
life cycle cost can be generated. A partial list would
pressure surges (Fig. 9). The pad may foul with material
and fail due to pressure drop increases.
1. Capital
2. Catalyst
5. Maintenance
The best way to review profitability is the life cycle cost, 6. Industry average on stream factor (95% 20 days
which is the initial capital cost of plant along with the per year)
first 10 years operations and maintenance cost. The life
cycle cost includes a reliability factor, which is very For distillation the largest life cycle cost would be
important in designing any process plant equipment. energy and maintenance concerns.
Improved reliability has a very large impact on ROI.
Life cycle cost should include total operating cost Factors that increase life cycle cost
for the first 10 years of operation. Accounting rules Several factors that increase life cycle cost include;
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj

1. The need for very high or very low temperatures, will inherently have a lower level of efficiency perfor-
less that 40 C or greater than 250 C mance. Generally, higher capacity devices exhibit lower
2. Small concentrations of high boiling contaminants efficiency. The reason for this is that the contact time
must be removed high energy. between the liquid and the vapor is greatly reduced at
3. High operating flexibility for seasonal or market higher throughput.
4. Low stage efficiency
5. Exotic materials of construction Design of trays to improve efficiencies and
6. Low instrumentation reliability capacities

Trayed Columns utilize a pressure and temperature

In distillation the two large life cycle cost drivers are
differential to separate the products. For most trayed
stage efficiency, which is actually energy usage and
columns, the weir holds a certain amount of liquid
operational flexibility.
level on each tray (Fig. 10). The vapor must overcome
this liquid head to move up the column. On the tray
Stage efficiency the vapor and liquid are contacted and then above the
There are certain rules of thumb in distillation that tray they are separated. Any deviation that restricts the
apply to stage efficiency behavior. Some of these are: vapor and liquid from contacting and then separating
will deteriorate the columns ability to meet design
a. Increased pressure increases tray efficiency specifications.
b. Decreased pressure increase packing efficiency Items that lead to improvements in tray efficiency
c. Increased viscosity decreases tray and packing effi- include;
1. Path flow length
d. Increased relative volatility decreases tray efficiency 2. Deck opening size
3. Elimination of stagnant zones
Many things influence stage efficiency. The first and 4 Down comer outlet devices/froth promoters
foremost is the type device employed for the service. 5. Weir heights
Next is the system itself including the pressure, L/V
ratio, relative volatility, and physical properties. Path flow length
The choice of device is important from the viewpoint The longer the path flow length, the higher the tray
of capacity, but many times a higher capacity device efficiency. At short path flow lengths, less than 300 mm

baffle bar

Time 0.5 s 0.9 s 1.5 s

Figure 10. Liquid flow on trays. This figure is available in colour online at
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj
304 K. KOLMETZ ET AL. Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering

a tray will achieve the point efficiency. Longer flow path

lengths can actually allow a try to achieve efficiency in
excess of 100%.

Opening size
There is an optimum bubble size, therefore an optimum
opening size. Too small or too large can effect the size
of the bubble, leading to loss of efficiency. Here is the
normal trade off between capacity and efficiency.

Elimination of stagnant zones

Parallel flow across a cordial surface can lead to
stagnant areas. Liquid directional push valves can help
eliminated the stagnant zones.
Figure 11. Down comer flow. This figure is available in
colour online at
Down comer outlet devices/froth promoters
The clear liquid exiting the down comer becomes
froth on the tray (Fig. 11). Items that assist this froth
generation improve efficiency. 120

Point Efficiency (%) 100

Weir heights
The weir height has an effect on the tray efficiency
(Fig. 12). Recommendations are not to exceed 100 mm 60
or 1/6 of tray spacing, and 50 to 75 is suggested for all
services except vacuum services. 40

Exotic materials of construction 0
The choice of materials of construction can have a 0 20 40 60 80 100 120
profound effect on the performance of a unit if corrosion Liquid Height (mm)
sets in. The engineer is constantly striving to produce
an economical design with the least expensive materials. Figure 12. Weir Height versus efficiency. This figure is
available in colour online at
However, there are minimum specifications on the types
of materials to be used in common services to ensure
minimal corrosion or stress cracking. Some of these are:
Oleo chemical application example divided
wall columns versus side strippers for fatty acid
Hydrocarbons (no H2S) Carbon steel (A-569) distillation
temp >40 C An oleo chemical application example for life cycle
Hydrocarbons (no H2S) Killed carbon steel cost would be to compare a conventional column with
temp 30 to 40 C side strippers verses a divided wall column. A dis-
Hydrocarbons (no H2S) 3 1/2 Nickel steel tillation column may be required to process different
temp 100 to 30 C (SA-203) feedstocks and produce different products simultane-
Hydrocarbons (no H2S) 304L Stainless steel ously. Divided wall columns have been proposed, but
temp <100 C few applications have been proven in the oleochemcial
Acetic acid 316L Stainless steel or industry.
titanium The main advantages of divided wall columns
Chloride service Duplex 2205 or (Fig. 14) include;
Hastelloy C-276
Chlorine & HCl service Nickel 200 or tantalum 1. Two columns combined in one shell
Ethanol 304L Stainless steel 2. Decreased energy requirements
Methanol Carbon steel and 304L 3. Production of three products
Stainless steel 4. Creation of a prefractionator on the feed side
5. Avoid remixing of products
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj

C12 99% C14 99%

4,851 kg/h 1,616 kg/h


10,000 kg/h

Max. 0.4%
C14 FA

Figure 13. Case one conventional two-column system. This figure is available in colour
online at

Divided wall columns are preferred when;

1. Middle boiling component (B) is not in excess C12 99%
2. Desired purity of middle boiling component (B) is 4,851 kg/h
higher that can be achieved with a side draw.
3. Product specifications and relative volatility distri-
bution are uniform.
The main challenges of divided wall columns in the COCONUT C14 99%
OIL FA 1,616 kg/h
oleo chemical industry include;
10,000 kg/h
1. Limited flexibility
2. Potential corrosion problems
3. Limited familiarity
Fractionation columns with added side strippers are
a well proven way to satisfy the increased demands Max. 0.4%
of capacity and efficiency. The availability of second C14 FA
5,149 kg/h
generation structured packing reduces the pressure drop,
while making it possible to increase capacity and Figure 14. Case two divided wall column sys-
maintain current product purities. New columns can tem. This figure is available in colour online at
be designed much more compactly, while revamps can
improve on capacity and purity. Revamping an existing
column and adding a side-stripper may allow switching
from a two to a three-product production scheme. Advantages of divided wall column:
Advantages of a Conventional Two Column System
(Fig. 13): 1. Lowest overall capital cost
2. Compact Design, lower space requirements
1. Established industrial practice
2. Easy to operate Disadvantages of Divided Wall Column:
3. Low pressure drop as required packing height is
1. Limited feedstock flexibility (design for one single
4. Flexible in feedstocks and products
2. Additional reflux divider required
5. Low energy consumption
3. Increased operational and maintenance complexity
6. Stable operations
4. More sensitive to fouling and corrosion/difficult
7. Small column diameter
Disadvantages of a Conventional Two Column Sys- 5. Increased pressure drop
tem 6. Increased column diameter
1. Higher overall capital cost Advantages of single column with side stripper
2. Large space requirements (Fig. 15):
2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj
306 K. KOLMETZ ET AL. Asia-Pacific Journal of Chemical Engineering

1. Low capital cost theoretical stages, packing heights, pressure drop etc.
2. Reasonable energy consumption on capital and operating cost.
3. Ease of installation
4. Stable flexible operation
5. Good performance if middle distillate is in lower CONCLUSIONS
6. Decreased operational and maintenance complexity
An engineers function is to find the most economical
7. Possibilities to revamp single column and add new
solution to a complex problem. The optimum design
side strippers
guidelines as presented here describe a way to achieve
Disadvantages of single column with side stripper: this end through consideration of the life cycle cost. The
authors trust that the information contained here in has
1. Increased pressure drop been of help in determining the lowest life cycle cost
2. Increased column diameter of their separations needs.
3. Slightly larger space requirements
A comparison of the three cases (Table 1) is based
on individually optimized detailed process simulations
and consequent plant designs, incorporating different Kister HZ. Distillation Design. McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc.:
aspects like the impacts on the required number of New York, 1992.

C12 99%
4,851 kg/h


10,000 kg/h C14 99%

1,161 kg/h

Max. 0.4%
C14 FA
5,149 kg/h

Figure 15. Case 3 single column with side stripper. This figure is available
in colour online at

Table 1. Comparison of three the cases.

Two column system case 1 Divided wall column case 2 Column with side stripper case 3
Purity Same Same Same
Capacity (%) 100 100 100
Column diameter (m) 2.1/1.5 2.8 2.7/2.3 + 1.5
Overall capital cost 100 70 80
Energy consumption (kW) 1690 (100%) 2115 (125%) 1882 (108%)
Life cycle costa 100 94.8b 87.6
Based on USD 170 per tons of fuel gas and current capital investment cost indexes.
Without consideration of operational flexibility (processing different feedstock).
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DOI: 10.1002/apj
Kister HZ. Recent Trends in Distillation Tower Malfunctions. Plants. American Institute of Chemical Engineers: New Orleans,
Distillation Topical Conference, Spring National AlChE Meeting, LA, 2004.
AlChE: New Orleans, LA; MarchApril, 2003. Kolmetz K, Sloley A, Zygula T, Faessler PW, Ng WK, Senthil K,
Kister HZ. Trouble Free Design of Refinery Fractionators. Petroleum Lim TY. Designing distillation columns for vacuum service. The
Technology Quarterly, Q4, 2003. 11th India Oil and Gas Symposium and International Exhibition,
Kolmetz K, Zygula T. Resolving process distillation equipment Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, 67 September 2004.
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Conference, Johor Bahru, Malaysia, October 31st November New York, 1998.
3rd, 2000. Summers DR. Best Practices in Tray Design, unpublished, 23 Jan
Kolmetz K, Sloley AW, Zygula TM, Ng W, Faessler PW. Design 2001.
guidelines for distillation columns in fouling service. The 16th Summers DR. Harmonic Vibrations Cause Tray Damage, 2003.
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Technology, Advances in Distillation Technology for Ethylene I, San Francisco, CA, Paper 307g, November 18, 2003.

2007 Curtin University of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Asia-Pac. J. Chem. Eng. 2007; 2: 294307
DOI: 10.1002/apj