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Workshop 7 Distillation control

Have confidence that if you have done a little thing well, you can do a bigger thing well, too.
Joseph Storey


Prior to attempting this workshop, you should review Chapter 8 in the book.
Distillation is one of the most important unit operations in chemical engineering. It
forms the basis of many processes and is an essential part of many others. It presents a
more difficult control problem then with many other unit operations, as at least five vari-
ables need to be controlled simultaneously and there are at least five variables available
for manipulation. Thus, a distillation column provides an example of a multiple-input–
multiple-output control problem. It is critical that variable pairing is done appropriately
between controlled and manipulated variables. The overall control problem can usually
be reduced to a 2 × 2 composition control problem since the inventory and pressure
loops frequently do not interact with the composition loops. This workshop will high-
light some fundamental rules of distillation control and show how a basic distillation
control scheme can be selected.

Key learning objectives

1 There are five degrees of freedom present in a simple distillation column with no
side draws and a total condenser. The degrees of freedom increase by one with each
side draw and for a partial condenser, which has two overhead products.

2 The degrees of freedom equal the number of controlled variables, the number
of manipulated variables, and the number of control valves: DF = Ncv = Nmv =
Nvalves .

3 Steady-state analysis can be used to develop a basic control strategy that provides
good sensitivity. Dynamic analysis is required to develop a control scheme that
provides good responsiveness.

A Real-Time Approach to Process Control, Second Edition W. Y. Svrcek, D. P. Mahoney and B. R. Young
© 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-470-02533-8
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4 Vapour and liquid flows have different dead times and response times.

5 Two-point composition control involves the control of both the distillate and bottoms
compositions simultaneously. One-point composition control involves operating
one of the composition control loops in manual or using a non-composition-related
variable as the controlled variable.

6 Distillation control schemes are usually described by the two variables which are
manipulated for composition control (i.e. the LV, DV or LB configuration) and may
work by manipulating either the mass balance (i.e. the DV and LB configurations)
or the energy balance (i.e. the LV configuration).


1 Stabiliser configuration

The distillation column shown in Figure W7.1 is typical of a stabilizer, which is found in
most refineries. The column is designed to remove volatile components from potential
gasoline blendstocks. The feed is usually a mixture of C3 , C4 , and C5 . In this case,
the feed contains 5 per cent propane, 40 per cent isobutane, 40 per cent n-butane, and







Figure W7.1 Stabilizer

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15 per cent isopentane by weight. The total flow rate is 40 000 bbl day−1 at 720 kPa
and 30◦ C.
The stabilizer contains 20 trays and a total condenser. Feed enters at tray 10. The
normal column overhead pressure is 700 kPa and there is a 20 kPa pressure difference
that is evenly distributed between the condenser and the reboiler. Each tray is 2.0 m in
diameter with a 0.10 m weir, which is 1.6 m long. The bottoms product specification
is 0.01 wt% C3 , and the column is normally operated with a reflux ratio of 1.0.
Use the Peng–Robinson property package and the above information to build a
simulation model of the stabilizer. View the results to get a feel for the column in
steady state mode.
Hint: The column has two degrees of freedom after the in-built inventory and ca-
pacity controls have been considered. These should initially be taken up by a
bottoms composition specification and a reflux ratio specification.

2 Control system objectives and design considerations

Ultimately, the importance of process control is seen through increased overall process
efficiency allowing the plant engineer to get the most from the process design. This is
especially true of distillation control. Most distillation columns are inherently flexible,
and a wide range of product yields and compositions can be obtained at varying levels
of energy input. A key requirement of any control system is that it relates directly to the
process objectives. A control system that does not meet the process objectives or pro-
duces results that conflict with the process objectives does not add value to the process.
The first step of control system design is to identify the process objectives, which
may not always be obvious. One process objective of the system shown in Figure W7.1
is to control the propane content of the bottoms at 0.01 wt%. However, other process
objectives are not clear from the information given above. Controlling the reflux ratio
at 1.0 may be desirable for the given conditions, but this is not a key process objective
as it does not directly fix any property of the products or the energy consumption.
Some possible process objectives for this system include:
r minimum energy input
r maximum product yield
r minimum isopentane in the overhead product
r maximum recovery of C4 + components
r overhead temperature to meet utility requirement.

In the stabilizer described above, we will initially use the bottoms composition to set
the feed split and the energy input to set the fractionation. As yet, we have not paired
these controlled variables to control valves (manipulated variables).

r Define the control objectives for the stabilizer built in the previous task.
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Table W7.1 Expected feed variance

Base case Minimum flow Maximum flow

Feed Rate (bbl day−1 ) 40 000 20 000 50 000

C3 (wt%) 5 1 12
iC4 (wt%) 40 44 33
nC4 (wt%) 40 45 37
iC5 (wt%) 15 10 18

3 Distillation control design via steady-state analysis

The feed to the stabilizer described above is expected to vary in both rate and compo-
sition. The preferred control system design should be able to handle the design feed
conditions and any extremes that might be expected. The data in Table W7.1 should be
used to test any control system design.
Simulations allow essentially all types of variable to be used as controlled variables.
However, a control scheme must be implementable in an operating plant. This requires
that the variable being controlled can be accurately measured to provide feedback in a
control loop. Examples of variables that can be easily measured include flows (espe-
cially liquid flows), temperature, and pressures. Some compositions, mainly mass and
volumetric fractions, can be measured using analysers, but these instruments are gener-
ally expensive and often introduce considerable dead time to processes. Consequently,
they are excluded from many control systems.
Preliminary control system design has traditionally been conducted using steady-
state data only. Steady-state simulations are performed to gain an understanding of the
process and the way it responds to certain changes (disturbances). This information
is used to select a candidate control system, which is then either tested with dynamic
simulations or immediately implemented in a plant environment in the hope that it
provides adequate control with correct tuning. A possible control system design strategy,
using only steady-state simulations, is as follows:

1 Select two potential controlled variables (i.e. temperature on tray 3 and the reflux
rate). Note the values of these variables from the base case solution (see Task 1)
and list them under the ‘Set point’ column in Table W7.2.

2 Use these two potential variables as the new specifications for the column in the
steady-state, base case simulation. The value for these two new specifications will
be the values noted as the set points in the previous step.

3 Solve the column with the new specifications and record the value of the two manip-
ulated variables under the ‘Prim. MV’ and ‘Sec. MV’ columns. These manipulated
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Table W7.2 Control strategy selection using steady-state analysis

Control objectives

Base case Min. flow Max. flow

Primary Secondary
controlled Set controlled Set Prim. Sec. Prim. Sec. Prim. Sec.
variable point variable point MV MV MV MV MV MV

variables are based on the control objectives, i.e. propane content in the bottoms
product and energy input.

4 Repeat step 3 for the expected extremes in flow rate and composition. Again, record
the values of the manipulated variables for each case.

5 Repeat starting from step 1 for two new potential controlled variables and/or differ-
ent set points. Determine which combination of controlled variables produces the
best overall control performance for all the feed variances by finding the pair with
corresponding set points that meet the control objectives for all variances tested.

6 After the control variables have been established to control the feed-split and column
fractionation, set the other variables to control inventory and capacity of the column.

The variable pairings required for inventory and capacity control will often be im-
mediately evident after the composition control variables have been selected. If not, the
following guidelines can help:
r Control the pressure with the condenser cooling duty.
r Control levels with an outlet stream from the vessel (i.e. reflux or distillate for the
reflux accumulator) or an energy stream that affects the inlet flow to the vessel (i.e.
the reboiler duty for the reboiler sump).
r Where more than one stream is available, choose the largest stream for level control.

Use the method listed above to build a control system for the stabilizer given in
Figure W7.1 with the following control objectives:

r 0.01 wt% propane in the bottoms

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r fixed energy input.

r You should consider the range of feed variance given in Table W7.1 and use only
variables that can be easily measured. Record your results in Table W7.2 and provide
a diagram of the candidate control system in your report write up.
r Are there any particular advantages or disadvantages associated with your preferred
combination of controlled variables?

Once the controlled variables have been chosen, determine what set points will allow
the control objectives to be met at all operating conditions (i.e. all three cases from Table
W7.1) using the following steps.

1 Modify the column specifications to control the process objectives (i.e. 0.01 wt%
propane in the bottoms and fixed heat input) directly.

2 Note the values of the selected controlled variables for all three cases in Table W7.1.

3 Identify which value of each controlled variable is the worst case (most conserva-

4 Re-solve the column with the ‘conservative’ values of the controlled variables to
confirm that the control objectives are met or exceeded for each case, meaning that
the concentration of propane in the bottoms is equal to or lower than the specification
and the energy input is equal to or lower than the target you have specified.

4 Dynamic responsiveness

Once you have completed the steady-state design, use the results to size all the valves
in the system. Add the control loops (two) determined from the steady-state design,
with the set points which allow the control objectives to be met at all times. Inventory
and pressure control will be available automatically, but you can add your own control
loops if desired. Solve the column in dynamic mode. You are free to change set points
or create disturbances to the system to examine how the control system performs. A
good starting point would be to see how the column responds to step disturbances in
the feed between the expected feed cases. You may need to tune the control loops in
order to produce an adequate response.
r Does your candidate control scheme provide satisfactory control?
Hint: test the control schemes for a wide range of disturbances, including some
outside the bounds of the steady-state design. Are the system dead times and lags
dominating the control behaviour? Are both set point changes and disturbances handled
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5 Distillation column control configurations

We noted previously that a simple distillation column with a total condenser normally
has five degrees of freedom. Each degree of freedom corresponds to a control valve and
a controlled variable. Three of these degrees of freedom must be used to control the
inventory and capacity variables, i.e. levels and pressures. The remaining two degrees
of freedom are used for composition control. The condenser duty (or a related variable)
is usually reserved for pressure control. However, any of the remaining four variables
can be used for composition control. The following notation is often used for the four
degrees of freedom: L is the liquid flow down the column, reflux rate; V = vapour flow
up the column, boil-up or reboiler duty; D = distillate rate; B = bottoms rate.
The relationship between boil-up and reboiler duty is not exact, but it is usually
sufficiently close so that the two variables can be used interchangeably.
Distillation control configurations are frequently described by the two variables that
are used for composition control or not used for inventory/capacity variable control.
For example, the LV configuration uses the reflux rate and reboiler duty to control the
product compositions. By inference, the condenser duty is used for pressure control,
the distillate rate is used to control the reflux accumulator level, and the bottoms rate
is used to control the reboiler sump level.

r Complete Table W7.3 by listing the manipulated variables MV for each of the
controlled variables.
r Why is the LD or BV configuration not likely to produce satisfactory control?
r Why is the DB configuration not likely to produce satisfactory control?
r For the DV and LB configurations, which variable should be used as the pri-
mary composition control variable and which should be used as the secondary
composition control variable?

The LV control configuration is often described as an energy balance configuration

and the DV and LB configurations are material balance configurations. This is because
the DV and LB configurations manipulate the feed-split or material balance directly

Table W7.3 Distillation column control configurations

MV for reflux MV for reboiler MV for primary MV for secondary

Control accumulator sump level composition composition
configuration level control level control control control

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by changing one of the product rates. However, the LV configuration only affects the
feed-split indirectly through the level controllers.
The basic distillation control configurations have been listed above. However, there
are many other configurations which use linear or even nonlinear combinations of
the basic manipulated variables. One common example, which is sometimes called
Ryskamp’s scheme [1], manipulates the reflux ratio L/D, via ratio control, and the
reboiler duty V . Another relatively common scheme is the double ratio configuration,
which manipulates the reflux ratio and the boil-up ratio. This scheme has been widely
recommended as it results in relatively small interactions between the two control loops.
This concept will be discussed in further detail at a later stage.

r The principal control objectives for the stabilizer were previously listed as
0.01 wt% propane in the bottoms and fixed energy consumption. Describe how
each of the three control configurations listed in Table W7.3 could be set up to
satisfy these control objectives.
r Test these configurations via simulation. Are there any significant differences
between the three schemes?

Hint: you may have to vary the tuning constants to get equivalent performance.

Present your findings on diskette in a short report using MS-Word. Also include
on the disk a copy of the HYSYS files which you used to generate your findings.


1. Ryskamp, C. J. New strategy improves dual composition column control (also effective on
thermally coupled columns). Hydrocarbon Process, 1980, June: pp. 51–9.