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Soun Ho Lee, GTC Technology, Irving, Texas, United States
Kwang Gil Min, GS Caltex Corporation, Yeosu, Korea

Presented for AIChE 2013 Spring Meeting, Abstract ID # 293319


Energy costs are the largest percentage of a hydrocarbon plants operating
expenditures. This is especially true of the distillation process which requires substantial
energy consumption. Concerns over recent high costs and economic pressures continually
emphasize the need for efficient distillation design and operation without a loss of

This paper will illustrate how energy efficient design can be applied in a distillation unit
through optimization between the distillation column and heat network system. Through a case
study, a successful retrofit of an aromatics distillation unit will be discussed. Detailed retrofit
activities including complex heat network evaluation, process simulation modeling and energy-
friendly, high-performance distillation equipment implementation are described.


As continuous distillation requires simultaneous heat input and removal (thus requiring
significant energy consumption), complex heat integration becomes more common for modern
distillation units to improve unit energy efficiency. Since a distillation columns degree of
separation and enthalpy balance influence each other, it is critical to evaluate and optimize the
distillation column and heat exchanger networks together in order to maximize plant economics.

There are numerous strategies to improve the energy efficiency of distillation processes,
with the amount of improvement through each strategy varied according to process condition.
The following are common strategies that can be applied to practical energy improvement

Feed temperature

Feed temperature is a major factor in influencing the overall heat balance of a
distillation column system. Increments in the feed enthalpy can help reduce the required
energy input from the reboiler at the same degree of separation. Installing a feed pre-heater is
a very common process option to minimize reboiler heat duty. If the feed preheater can be
integrated with other valuable process streams (as a heating medium), overall energy
efficiency of the distillation system can be improved further. However, increasing feed
temperature does not always improve the overall energy efficiency of a distillation unit.
Excessive feed temperature increments can cause a significant amount of flash of heavy key
and heavy non-key components at the distillation column feed zone. In this case, a higher

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amount of reflux stream is necessary to maintain required overhead distillate purities. This
augmented reflux ratio thus requires a higher boil up ratio. Overall energy efficiency is
eventually aggravated.
Therefore, careful review of feed temperature and phase is critical to
minimize overall energy consumption of the distillation unit.

Feed location

Improper feed location of a distillation column can also increase reflux/boil up ratio and
energy consumption. An ideal feed location is a section of the distillation column where column
internal liquid traffic composition is similar to feed stream composition. In this case, the
composition gradient between feed stream and distillation internal fluids is minimized. In actual
distillation column operation, actual feed compositions often are changed from the original
design conditions. In case of significant deviation, discrepancy between column internal liquid
composition and feed stream composition can increase and results in a non-optimum feed
location. Therefore, evaluating feed location is one of essential steps for a successful
distillation unit energy improvement.

Inter-condensers and inter-reboilers

Adding inter-condensers and/or inter-reboilers can help improve overall energy
efficiency. Pumparound, one of inter-condenser concepts has been widely applied to
numerous petroleum multi-product fractionators. On the other side, implementing an
intermediate reboiler can reduces the main reboiler duty. As the required temperature of an
intermediate reboiler is lower than the main reboiler, this strategy may allow heat integration
with other valuable heat sources that are less costly or not fully utilized in a plant.

Column operating pressure

Relaxation of column top operating pressure decreases the distillation column
temperature profile and results in lower reboiler duty. It has been observed that numerous
commercial distillation columns have been operated with lower operating pressures than the
original design values. However, this strategy is not applicable to columns operated under an
atmospheric pressure range. Column overhead circuit pressure drop and condenser
temperature approaches both heavily influence feasibility. In addition, column pressure
reduction expands vapor traffic and pushes the limits of existing distillation equipment.

Column pressure drop

Reducing column pressure drop can lower reboiler duty at the same degree of
separation. The amount of reboiler duty saving relies on operating pressure and enthalpy
balance. This strategy is generally feasible when the distillation column is operated under
vacuum pressure range. Meanwhile, pressure drop improvement does not often provide
noticeable energy savings in high pressure range distillation service.

Column efficiency improvement

Column efficiency improvement can reduce the reflux/boil up ratio at a given degree of
separation. This strategy can be delivered by increasing the number of theoretical stages
and/or enhancing the distillation equipment efficiency. The feasibility can be gauged by a
dedicated sensitivity analysis. Constructing a column efficiency curve with a reflux ratio is one
of core tools for the sensitivity analysis. A typical curve is displayed in the Figure 1. This curve

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visualizes column efficiency sensitivity and energy saving gain. The curve can be categorized
by three district zones: steep, moderate, and flat sensitivity zones.

Column efficiency improvement is usually very feasible when the reflux ratio falls in the
steep sensitivity zone and at ratios considerably in excess of the minimum reflux ratio. In this
scenario, even the small addition of stages, or an increase in distillation equipment efficiency,
can enhance overall column separation with significant energy reductions.

Improvement gain is diluted in the moderate sensitivity zone. Further detailed feasibility
study is necessary through economic analysis. The magnitude of energy savings is negligible
when reflux ratio variation follows flat motion in the remaining zone.

Figure 1: Typical Column Efficiency vs. Reflux Ratio Curve


The following discussion is a xylene mixture separation unit revamp case study that
demonstrates well thought out proven design practices and selection of the correct high
efficiency distillation equipment to fulfill the energy efficiency improvement. Figure 2 illustrates
the xylene mixture separation unit configurations under discussions. This schematic reveals
that original distillation units have implemented the full heat integration network for energy
efficient operation.

The function of the xylene column is to separate the feed mixture to xylene components
and heavier C9+ components. This column has two different feed sources. The reformate
splitter bottom stream and the toluene column bottom stream (which belongs to the aromatic
extraction unit) are introduced as the xylene column bottom feed stream. The bottom feed
stream is split equally and charged to two different feed trays. The reformate splitter bottom
stream is treated at the clay towers to eliminate traced olefin components before charging to
the xylene column.

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Meanwhile the deheptanizer bottom stream (from the xylene isomerization unit) is
charged as the xylene column top feed stock. This stream is also split and introduced to three
different feed trays.

The xylene column overhead vapor stream is split to three parallel streams. Two vapor
streams are utilized as the heat source of the extract column reboiler and the raffinate column
reboiler respectively. The condensed xylene column overhead liquid streams are returned to
the xylene column receiver. The other vapor stream is supplying heat to the xylene column
overhead steam generator which produces #250 steam. The condensed overhead liquid
stream is also returned to the xylene column receiver. The overhead distillate of the xylene
column is sent to the para-xylene recovery unit.

In the xylene column reboiler circuit, the xylene column bottom reboiler inlet stream is
first transported to the other two distillation column reboilers as heating mediums. After
providing heat to these reboilers, the xylene column bottom streams are combined and
introduced to the furnace-type xylene column reboiler.

In the para-xylene recovery unit, the xylene components from the xylene column are
separated through the adsorption process. The pre-separated extract stream from the
adsorption process is charged to the extract column in order to separate para-xylene from the
desorbent. At the same time, the pre-separated raffinate stream from the adsorption process is
charged to the raffinate column to rectify the raffinate components (meta-xylene, ortho-xylene
and ethyl-benzene) as side cut product.
A pasteurizing section is arranged at the top of the
raffinate column to remove moistures

from the side cut product

Figure 2: Xylene Column Heat Network Configuration

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To achieve additional energy efficiency gain, a dedicated process evaluation was
conducted for the unit. Column operating conditions were first compared to the original design
conditions. This comparison helps comprehend deviations between the original design and the
actual operational environment. It was observed that actual product purities of the xylene
column were higher than aromatic rundown products requirements. Relaxing the degree of
separation of the xylene column can reduce the reflux and boil up ratio and save fuel
consumptions for the xylene column furnace reboiler. However, the xylene column overhead
vapor streams are utilized as the raffinate and extract column reboiler heating mediums and
contribute steam production in the current unit energy network. Lower reflux / boil up ratios of
the xylene column decreases the amount of xylene overhead vapor used as heating medium
for the extract/raffinate column and/or steam generation.

Process simulation modeling was utilized as part of the process evaluation activities to
quantify and predict gains in energy efficiency. Equilibrium base simulation software was
utilized for the modeling. Base simulation modeling was first constructed through pertinent unit
test run data. Gathered major process stream flow rates were verified via flow meter orifice
calculations. Regular stream composition analysis reported bulk compositions for non-key
components such as non-aromatic and C9+ component groups. Preliminary simulation
modeling showed that component assumptions for these component groups varied simulation
results significantly. To improve accuracy of simulation, detailed component analysis was
specially arranged for the test run. Detailed component analysis was utilized for rigorous
simulation modeling. Key component balances closures for the extract and raffinate column
were less than 3%. Reconstructed feed compositions using products were applied for the
extract and raffinate column simulation. For the xylene column, given overall mass balance
closure was off by 5%. It was found that measured feed rates were more reliable than product
rates and bottom product rate was less reliable through overall unit mass balance investigation.
Based on this investigation, simulation modeling for the xylene column focused on matching
feed and overhead distillate rates.

Reasonable matching reflux temperature as well as rate is critical to quantify reliable
column internal traffic conditions. It has been observed that matching reflux temperature is
often overlooked in simulation modeling. Reflux rate is usually metered at a flow meter located
on the reflux piping. When the external reflux rate is recycled back to the column, the internal
reflux rate will vary depending upon the external reflux temperature. Therefore a poor matching
reflux temperature in the simulation will not predict the actual internal column traffic accurately.
This can result in erroneous efficiency assumptions of the existing column, or provide a
misleading, incorrect result.

Instrumentations for the extract and raffinate column pressure drop measurement were
not pertinent. Matching pressure drop was not ignored in simulation modeling; instead
matching column temperature data was focused. Temperature profiles are more important to
predict distillation column energy consumptions. Tables 1 summarizes base model simulation
results and compares test run data for the three columns. This table depicts that base model
results were reasonably matched to the test run data. As mentioned earlier, the xylene column
bottom rate was not matched. Through various sensitivity analyses, tray efficiencies of the
columns were quantified.

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Table 1: Pre-revamp test run and base simulation result comparison

Case Pre-revamp Simulation
Parameter Unit Test run Results
Extract Column
Column top temperature
F BASE + 0.9
Column bottom temperature
F BASE + 1.1
Reboiler return temperature
Reflux ratio ( to overhead distillate) Volume BASE +1.1 %
Reflux temperature
Overhead distillate rate BPD BASE 0
Bottom rate BPD BASE 0
p-DEB impurity in overhead distillate wt ppm BASE 0
Xylene impurity in bottom wt ppm BASE 0
Raffinate Column
Column top temperature
F BASE + 6.7
Side cut draw temperature
F BASE - 4.3
Column bottom temperature
F BASE - 0.5
Reboiler return temperature
F BASE - 2.9
Reflux ratio ( to side cut) Volume BASE - 0.58 %
Reflux temperature
Overhead distillate rate BPD BASE 0
Bottom rate BPD BASE 0
p-DEB impurity in side cut stream wt ppm BASE 0
Xylene impurity in bottom wt ppm BASE 0
Xylene Column
Column top temperature
F BASE - 0.9
Column bottom temperature
Reboiler return temperature
F BASE - 2.25
Reflux ratio ( to overhead distillate) BPD. BASE + 0.04 %
Reflux temperature
Overhead distillate rate BPD BASE - 0.1 %
Bottom rate BPD BASE - 5 %
C9+ impurity in overhead distillate wt ppm BASE 0
Xylene impurity in bottom wt ppm BASE 0

Extensive case studies were performed for feasibility of energy efficiency improvement
of the unit. The case studies focused on energy consumptions in the extract and raffinate
columns. Energy improvements in the other two distillation column reboilers in the xylene
column reboiler circuit also help reduce fuel consumptions of the xylene column furnace
reboiler but magnitude was not significant.

Since both columns are operated under atmospheric pressure, reducing column
operating pressure is not applicable. In addition, feed streams of both of the columns are
preheated by bottom product streams. Adding independent feed preheaters was not feasible
due to limited plot and poor economics. The study showed that reducing column pressure drop
using the low pressure drop nature of trays does not deliver reboiler duty savings in both of the

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Case study results for column efficiency improvement showed that energy efficiency
improvement was feasible. The column efficiency curves were constructed using simulated
reflux ratio and theoretical stage values and base modeling and improved column efficiency
points were plotted. Figures 3 and 4 display these curves. An improved column efficiency point
was predicted through an increased number of trays scenario. Simulated tray efficiency values
of the base modeling were maintained for improved column efficiency case study. Extra
individual tray efficiency improvement was not considered. Original trays were arranged with
600 mm (~24) regular tray spacing. The increased number of tray was predicted through
reduced tray spacing scenario: 450 mm (~18) regular tray spacing. As a higher tray count can
increases the column pressure drop, increased column pressure drop values were applied for
column efficiency improvement case studies. The charts in Figures 3 and 4 show that the
reflux ratios of the columns were positioned in the steep sensitivity zone and that enhancing
column efficiencies are beneficial to improve energy consumptions of both columns. Reduced
reboiler duties of the extract and raffinate columns contribute to the xylene column furnace
reboiler duty in the unit energy network.

Figure 3: Extract Column Sensitivity Analysis (Revamp Design)

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Figure 4: Raffinate Column Sensitivity Analysis (Revamp Design)


Based on the aforementioned case study results, the extract and raffinate columns
were modified. The number of trays was increased in both of the columns. At a given column
shell height, a higher number of trays requires short tray spacing causing tray capacity loss. To
prevent column capacity reductions, GT-OPTIM high performance trays were implemented
in both of the columns. The higher capacity nature of the GT-OPTIM tray maintains the desired
column capacity with shorter tray spacing. In addition, efficiency enhancement features of GT-
OPTIM trays can contribute to maximizing column efficiency. Various performance enhancing
features adapted in GT-OPTIM trays improves the vapor-liquid contact mechanism and
enhances tray efficiency. These include specialized shaped downcomers, liquid inlet
momentum breakers, tray inlet vapor/liquid contact initiation devices and directional valves
positioned in the tray periphery area. Tray pressure drop was optimized to prevent a too low
tray vapor velocity that can downgrade tray efficiency due to insufficient vapor/liquid contact

Original trays for the pasteurization section of the raffinate column were designed with
three pass. A chimney tray was positioned between three pass pasteurization section trays
and two pass rectification section trays. It is inherently difficult to achieve a uniform liquid-to-
vapor traffic ratio in each section of the three pass trays. Moreover, the original pasteurization
section trays and the chimney tray did not equip any feature for proper flow ratio balancing.
Each chimney pass open area ratio was not matched to the neighboring three pass tray pass
open area ratio. In order to improve flow ratio balancing, the number of passes for the
pasteurization section trays was changed from three to two and a new chimney tray was
installed as per pass change.

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The pre- and post-revamp performances are summarized and compared in Table 2. As
the overall aromatic unit capacity has been expanded, the column charge rates are also
increased. Post-revamp operation verifies that reflux ratios of the extract and raffinate column
are reduced and these reduced reflux ratios eventually contribute to energy savings in the
Xylene Column reboiler furnace. Measured furnace fuel consumption per the feed rate is
substantially improved. Since the Para-Xylene recovery unit adsorbent upgrade also
contributes furnace fuel consumption saving, net energy saving contribution through the
column modifications was simulated and included in Table 2.

As product quality specifications are little relaxed to maximize the energy saving and
column feed structures are changed, it is necessary to re-evaluate the extract and raffinate
column performances with post-revamp operating conditions. The column efficiency curves are
constructed using post-revamp operation simulation modeling and compared to the pre revamp
base modeling curves. Degree of separation lines between pre and post revamp operations
are displayed in Figures 5-6.

Table 2: Test Run Data Comparison

Case Pre-revamp Post-revamp
Parameter Unit Test run Test run
Extract Column
Feed rate BPD BASE + 18 %
Overhead distillate rate BPD BASE + 36 %
Feed temperature
F BASE + 2.3
Reflux temperature
F BASE + 16.9
Column top pressure psi BASE + 1.3 psi
Reflux ratio ( to overhead distillate) volume BASE - 28%
p-DEB impurity in overhead distillate wt ppm BASE - 1 ppm
Xylene impurity in bottom wt ppm BASE + 16 ppm
Raffinate Column
Feed rate BPD BASE + 14 %
Side cut product rate BPD BASE + 28 %
Feed temperature
F BASE + 5.6
Reflux temperature
F BASE + 0.1
Column top pressure psi BASE + 1.4 psi
Reflux ratio ( to side cut) volume BASE - 6%
p-DEB impurity in side cut wt ppm BASE + 23 ppm
Xylene impurity in bottom wt ppm BASE + 4 ppm
Xylene Column
Feed rate
BPD BASE + 30 %
Unit reboiler fuel consumption
Unit reboiler fuel consumption
250# steam generation Lb/hr BASE + 26 %

1. Total feed rate
2. Equivalent furnace fuel oil consumption rate per feed charge rate
3. Simulated fuel consumption saving through the column efficiency improvement

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Figure 5: Extract Column Sensitivity Analysis (Pre and Post Revamp)

Figure 6: Raffinate Column Sensitivity Analysis (Pre and Post Revamp)


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It is found that the raffinate column feed structure is changed in the post-revamp
operating mode. Sensitivity analysis through simulation modeling shows that post-revamp
degree of separation line is substantially shifted by the changed feed compositions and the
pre-revamp degree of separation line is no longer applicable. Figure 6 visualizes post-revamp
degree of the separation curve for the raffinate column is significantly shifted by the new feed

The post revamp economic evaluations are updated and compared to the revamp
target evaluations.
The evaluations are based on 3% inflation, 10% weighted average cost of
capital, 15% depreciation, 1% of the total investment for maintenance, 22% tax bracket and
Year 2012 average fuel price. Profitability indexes are expressed with regards to Payback
Period, Net Present Value (NPV) and Internal Rate of Return (IRR). These Indexes are charted
in Figures 7-9. These charts show actual revamp profitability is better than expected.

Figure 7: Profitability index Payback Period

Figure 8: Profitability index Net Present Value

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Figure 9: Profitability index Internal rate of Return


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Bottom Streams, I&EC Process Design and Development, 1963

5. Kister H, et al, Sensitivity analysis is key to successful DC5 simulation Hydrocarbon
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6. Largeteau D, et al, Challenges and opportunities of 10 ppm sulfur gasoline: part 2, PTQ Q4