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Distillation Tutorial II: McCabe-Thiele Method of Distillation Design

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The McCabe-Thiele method of distillation design is a graphical method of design that dates back to
the early 20th century. It is used as an introductory method to teach the design of distillation and is
still in use today by engineers who design distillation columns. The McCabe-Thiele method
considers binary distillations but can also be used for what are called pseudo-binary mixtures (i.e.
mixtures that are treated as binary by identifying light and heavy key components).
1. Introductory Concepts. The main features of the McCabe-Thiele method are that it:
a.

Combines equilibrium with mass balance concepts.

b.

Is a graphical approach.

c.

Applies to (pseudo-) binary mixtures.

d.

Uses constant molar overflow (CMO) assumptions.

e.

Approximates energy balance effects and energy demands.

Binary Distillation. The easiest way to understand the McCabe-Thiele method is graphically. To do
this, we begin with a slightly more detailed schematic of a distillation column than shown in Fig. 1
of Tutorial I.

Figure 1: Detailed Schematic of a Distillation Column


This schematic is interpreted as follows: There are N stages in the distillation column including the
reboiler and condenser and they are numbered from bottom to top. A feed mixture enters the column
at some stage f between the top and the bottom and can be liquid, vapor, or a mixture of both. The
collection of trays above the feed stage is called the rectifying section of the distillation column and
distillate product is generally withdrawn from the top of the column. Trays below the feed stage
comprise the stripping section of the column and bottoms product is withdrawn from the reboiler.
Vapor, which is generated by adding heat to the reboiler, flows up the column because the pressure at
the bottom of the column is (slightly) higher than that at the top. Liquid, on the other hand, flows
down the column and is generated by condensing some of the vapor that enters the condenser. The
portion of the liquid from the condenser that is returned to the distillation column is called reflux
while the vapor that is generated in the reboiler is called vapor boil-up.
2. The McCabe-Thiele Method. One of the key features of the McCabe-Thiele method (as well as
other distillation design methods) is that it is assumed that vapor entering from the stage below and
liquid entering from the tray above come in contact with each other and leave any given stage in
equilibrium. Before presenting the equations of the McCabe-Thiele method we illustrate it
graphically for a 50-50 % mixture of saturated liquid ethylene and ethane at 100 psia. We will call
this column a C2 splitter. Finally, we specify the reflux ratio to be r = 3.9. We suggest that you
follow each step by referring to Fig. 2 below.

The Graphical Steps of the McCabe-Thiele Method


1.

Draw the yx diagram for the binary mixture of interest at the operating pressure of the
distillation column. Typically y and x refer to the mole fraction of the light component.

2.

Draw the 45-degree line.

3.

Draw the feed line based on the quality (or energy content of the feed). For saturated liquid,
this is a vertical line running from the feed composition through the equilibrium curve. For
saturated vapor, this line is a vertical line from the feed composition to the 45-degree line,
then a horizontal line from the 45-degree line through the equilibrium curve. Other feed
conditions can also be drawn with the aid of a simple equation and will be discussed later in
this tutorial in the section on feed quality.

4.

Place the desired bottoms composition, xB, and the desired distillate composition, xD, on the
x-axis.

5.

For a specified reflux ratio, r, draw the 'rectifying' line. This rectifying line begins at the
point xD on the 45-degree line and has a slope of
r / (r+1).

6.

Draw the 'stripping' line by connecting the intersection of the feed line and the rectifying
line and the point xB on the 45-degree line. The slope of the stripping line is related to r
because r fixes the point of intersection of the rectifying line and the feed line. This
intersection and xB uniquely fix the stripping line and thus its slope. We usually denote the
slope of this line by (s+1) / s where s is the vapor boil-up ratio. In this example, s works out
to be 4.5.

7.

Beginning at the point xD on the rectifying line, draw a horizontal line to the equilibrium
curve and then a vertical line to the operating (rectifying or stripping) line.

8.

Repeat step 7 forming a staircase until you reach or pass the point xB on the 45-degree line.

9.

Each point where the staircase intersects the equilibrium curve denotes one stage in the
column.

We can also begin stepping off stages in any distillation column by starting at the point x B on the 45degree line and moving upward. It is also possible to specify a desired boil-up ratio, s, instead of a
desired reflux ratio, r.
Practice Exercises. Understanding the graphical nature of the McCabe-Thiele method is an
important first step in understanding distillation design. Consider a 30-70 % mixture of ethane and
propane at 150 psia where the feed is saturated liquid at its bubble point. Suppose the desired
bottoms composition is xB = 0.05 and the desired distillate composition is xD = 0.99. Let the boil-up
ratio be specified at s = 2. Answer the following:
1.

Use the McCabe-Thiele graphical procedure and determine the reflux ratio r.

2.

Determine the number of equilibrium stages that are required for this distillation.

3.

Compute the temperatures of the feed, bottoms, and distillate by determining their

respective bubble points.

Figure 2
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3. Equations of the McCabe-Thiele Method. There are a number of important equations that come
from the McCabe-Thiele method that are related to mass and energy balancing. These equations
include the operating lines (i.e. rectifying and stripping lines), the feed line, the relationship between
reflux ratio and boil-up ratio, and the determination of heating and cooling requirements.
Mass Balance Considerations. Mass balancing is an important part of distillation column design,
analysis, and simulation. Suppose we return to our C2 splitter illustration, which is fed with 100
lbmol/h of a 50-50 % mixture of ethane and ethylene, has a feed that is saturated liquid at its bubble
point, and operates at 100 psia. The desired composition of the bottoms product is xB = 0.05 and the
composition of the distillate is xD = 0.98. We now illustrate how mass balancing determines the
rectifying and stripping lines in the McCabe-Thiele method.
Operating Lines. Go back to Fig. 1 and draw an imaginary (mass balance) box that encloses the
reboiler and all stages up to and including stage j in the bottom section of the column so that only the
bottoms product and the streams entering or leaving stage j cross this imaginary box. This imaginary
box is often called a mass balance envelope. If we now write a total mass balance for this imaginary
box we get
Lj+1 = Vj + B

(2.1)

If we also write a component mass balance for ethylene, which we will call component 1, we get
Lj+1xj+1 = Vjyj + BxB

(2.2)

Let's solve Eq. 2.2 for yj. This gives


yj = [Lj+1 / Vj] xj+1 [B / Vj] xB

(2.3)

Now let's use Eq. 2.1 to eliminate Lj+1 from Eq. 2.3. To do this simply substitute Vj + B for Lj+1 in Eq.
2.3. This gives
yj = [(Vj + B) / Vj] xj+1 [B / Vj] xB

(2.4)

If we define s, the stripping or boil-up ratio, to be s = V/B, then Eq. 2.4 can be re-written as
yj = [1 + B / Vj] xj+1 [B / Vj] xB = [1 + 1 / s] xj+1 [1 / s] xB

(2.5)

Finally, we can substitute s/s for 1 in the first term on the far right of Eq. 2.5 and get
yj = [(s + 1) / s] xj+1 [1 / s] xB
which is called the stripping line. Now it is important for you to see that the slope of this line is

(2.6)

(s+1)/s and that it intersects the 45-degree line at the point xB. First, we consider Eq. 2.6 to define yj
as a function of xj+1. Thus Eq. 2.6 can be written in the familiar form y = mx + b. If you then
compare Eq. 2.6 to y = mx + b, the slope is (s+1)/s. Understanding why Eq. 2.6 intersects the 45degree line at xB is a little harder. Here you must realize that intersecting the 45-degree line at xB
means yj = xj+1 = xB. So if we set yj = xB in Eq. 2.6 and do some simple algebra we should get that xj+1
= xB.
Let's do that.
xB = [(s + 1) / s] xj+1 [1 / s] xB
Adding [1 / s]xB to each side of Eq. 2.7 gives us
[1 + 1/s] xB = [(s + 1) / s] xj+1

(2.7)
(2.8)

However, from Eq. 2.5 we know that the last term in Eq. 2.8 can also be written as [1 + 1/s]x j+1.
Therefore, Eq. 2.8 can be written as
[1 + 1/s] xB = [1 + 1/s] xj+1

(2.9)

By dividing both sides of Eq. 2.9 by [1 + 1/s], we see that xj+1 = xB.
Practice Exercises. To strengthen your mass balancing skills, answer the following.
1.

Mimic the analysis we have just done to show that the equation for the rectifying line in the
top section of the distillation column is
yj = [r / (r+1)] xj+1 + [1 / (r+1)] xD, where r = L/D.

2.

Show that this rectifying line intersects the 45-degree line at xD.

Energy Considerations in the McCabe-Thiele Method. Remember we said that distillation can
use large amounts of energy. This energy is supplied in the form of heat to the reboiler and cooling
to the condenser. Although it's not obvious, the McCabe-Thiele method does take into account
energy considerations in an approximate way through the boil-up and reflux ratios s and r
respectively. The definition of s is s = V/B where B is the bottoms product flow rate and V is the
flow of vapor from the reboiler. Using a total mass balance around the reboiler (see Fig. 1) we see
that the total amount of liquid material entering the reboiler is
L=V+B

(2.10)

Since liquid bottoms B and vapor V both leave the reboiler, V represents the amount of entering
liquid L that is vaporized by adding heat. We can express this portion in terms of the boil-up ratio s
as follows. Dividing both sides of Eq. 2.10 by V we get
L/V = 1 + 1/s = (s + 1) / s

(2.11)

Rearranging Eq. 2.11 we get


V = L[s / (s+1)]

(2.12)

which shows that V is just L multiplied by the fraction s/(s+1). Note that s/(s+1) must lie between 0

and 1. For s = 0, there is not vapor flow since Ls = 0 and this is consistent with the fact that s = V/B
= 0 means V = 0. For s = 0.5, the amount of vapor is V = [0.5/1.5]L = L/3 . This says the vapor flow
is one third that of the liquid flow to the reboiler when s = V/B = 0.5. Note that it also says (by mass
balance) that B = 2V. Double checking these results with the overall mass balance for the reboiler
shows that
L = V + B = L/3 + 2V = L/3 + 2L/3 = L
so everything is fine.
As s increases, the amount of vapor increases from a minimum of 0 when s = 0 to a maximum of L
when s = infinity, s/(s+1) = 1, and B = 0.
Now that we have a way to calculate the vapor rate V, we can also compute the heat energy needed
to generate that vapor. To calculate the heat required, we need to first determine the heat of
vaporization of the bottoms product. To do this, we need the heats of vaporization of both
components in our mixture and we must also use a very common engineering approximation of
weight averaging. Suppose we denote the heat of vaporization of ethylene in our example by l1 and
the heat of vaporization of ethane by l2. The bottoms product has a composition xB, where xB is the
mole fraction of ethylene since it is the light component. Thus the mole fraction of ethane in the
bottom product is (1 xB). Calculating the heat of vaporization of the bottoms product by weight
averaging means that we use the following simple formula:
B = xB 1 + (1 xB) 2

(2.13)

where B is used to denote the heat of vaporization of the bottoms product. The amount of heat
required in the reboiler, which we denote by QR, can now be calculated using the equation
QR = VB

(2.14)

We can also determine the amount of cooling required in the condenser in much the same way that
we just determined the heating requirements for the reboiler. To do this we can simply use the weight
averaging formula
D = xD 1 + (1 xD) 2

(2.15)

where here D is the heat of vaporization of the distillate product, xD is the composition of ethylene
in the distillate product, and (1 xD) is the composition of ethane in the distillate. The amount of
cooling can be calculated using the formula
QC = VD

(2.16)

where V is the amount of vapor entering the condenser or the vapor from stage N-1. Note that this
assumes that all of the vapor stream entering the condenser is condensed and then split into liquid
reflux and liquid distillate.
Practice Exercises.
1.

Calculate the heat of vaporization of the bottoms and distillate products for the C2 splitter

example using Eqs. 2.13 and 2.15.


2.

Determine the amount of heat required in the reboiler for a specified stripping ratio of s =
4.5.

3.

How much cooling is required in the condenser if r = 3.9?

Energy Balances and CMO Behavior. There is a subtle but important energy consideration that is
associated with constant molar overflow.
Stages Other Than Feed Stages. For any distillation stage, say stage j, without an external feed
stream, CMO implies that
Lj+1 = Lj

(2.17)

Vj-1 = Vj

(2.18)

These equations result by drawing an imaginary energy balance envelope around any single stage in
the rectifying or stripping sections of the distillation column other than a feed stage as shown in
Fig. 3 in combination with some physical approximation.

Lj+1

Vj

Lj

Vj-1

Figure 3: Energy Balance Envelope Around Stage j


Equations 2.17 and 2.18 can be interpreted physically by saying that CMO means that the heats of
vaporization of both components are equal. What this also means is that the amount of vapor
condensed at stage j is exactly balanced by the amount of liquid boiled at stage j resulting in no net
change in liquid or vapor entering and leaving stage j. Now this is not necessarily a good assumption
and can cause students to question the reliability of the McCabe-Thiele method. However, in many
cases the CMO assumption provides a reasonable approximation.
Quick Exercises. Determine how reasonable the CMO assumption is by answering the following:
1.

Calculate B and D for the C2 splitter illustration.

2.

What is the percentage difference in these values?

3.

Repeat questions 1 and 2 for acetone and water assuming the same product compositions as
were used in the C2 splitter.

Feed Stages. The energy balance considerations around any stage that has an external feed must
take into account the thermal quality (or energy content) of the feed stream. By this we mean that the
energy content of the feed could be any of the following:
1.

Saturated liquid at its bubble point.

2.

Saturated vapor at its dew point.

3.

A mixture of vapor and liquid (see the Txy diagrams from Tutorial I).

4.

Sub-cooled liquid at a temperature below its bubble point temperature.

5.

Super-heated vapor at a temperature above its dew point temperature.

We use the symbol q to denote the feed quality, where q = LF/F and is the fraction of feed that is
liquid. Thus immediately we see that for saturated liquid, q = 1. For saturated vapor, q = 0. For a
mixture of liquid and vapor feed, 0 < q < 1. For sub-cooled liquid feed, q > 1 and for super-heated
vapor feed, q < 0.
1.

Saturated Liquid Feed. For saturated liquid feed at its bubble point temperature,
approximate energy balance considerations with the CMO assumption given the following
equations.
Lj+1 + F = Lj

2.
Vj-1 = Vj
3.

Saturated Vapor Feed. For vapor feed at its dew point we get a different set of equations
resulting from energy balance approximation. Here the equations are
Lj+1 = Lj

4.
Vj-1 = Vj + F

5.

A Mixture of Vapor and Liquid Feed. In this case, we must either know the feed quality
or determine it. Nonetheless, since 0 < q < 1, we get the following approximate energy
balance results for a feed that is a mixture of liquid and vapor.
Lj+1 = Lj + qF

6.
Vj-1 = Vj + (1 - q)F

7.

Sub-Cooled Liquid Feed. To determine the heat effects of sub-cooled liquid, we must
know how sub-cooled the liquid is; therefore, we must know its temperature. Once we
know the feed temperature, we can then compare it to the bubble and dew point
temperatures of the feed to calculate a value of q using the formula
q = 1 [TF Tbp] / [Tdp Tbp]

8.
where TF is the temperature of the sub-cooled liquid feed. This equation is correct since for
any sub-cooled liquid feed, TF < Tbp and therefore the second term in Eq. 2.25 is actually
positive making q > 1.

9.

Super-Heated Vapor Feed. Equation 2.15 can also be used for determining q for any
super-heated vapor. Note in this case, TF > Tdp and therefore the second term in Eq. 2.25 is
actually negative and less than -1 making q < 0.

Now it is important to understand that Eqs. 2.23, 2.24, and 2.25 actually apply to all five cases of
feed quality. This is nice because then only one set of equations can be used to perform
approximated energy balance calculations and their impact on the changes in liquid and vapor flow
at any stage with an external feed.
Practice Exercises. In order to better understand Eqs. 2.23, 2.24, and 2.25, answer the following:
1.

For the C2 splitter example, determine the temperature of the saturated liquid feed. What do
you get for a value of q using Eq. 2.25?

2.

Suppose this feed was sub-cooled by 1.5 K. What would be the value of q?

3.

Suppose the feed was saturated vapor. What would be the value of q?

4.

What is the thermal quality of a feed that is at a temperature halfway between its bubble
point and dew point temperatures?

5.

For a vapor feed that is 20 K super-heated, what is the value of q?

q or the Slope of the Feed Line. To connect the previous discussions of approximate energy
balance, thermal quality of the feed and the McCabe-Thiele Method, we need to show that Eq. 2.25
together with the definition of q = LF/F can be placed on a McCabe-Thiele plot and make sense. For
this we need to understand that q is related to the slope of the feed line. This calculation of q is very
convenient and allows us to draw the feed line properly from the intersection of a vertical line drawn
from the feed composition and the 45-degree line.
Mathematically, the slope of the feed line is given by the simple equation
q / [q 1]
If you think about this for a minute and go back to your calculations for q, you will see that

(2.26)

1.

For a saturated liquid feed, q = 1 and the slope of the feed line is infinity. The feed line is a
vertical line.

2.

For saturated vapor feed, q = 0 and the slope of the feed line is also zero. The feed line is
horizontal and goes toward the equilibrium line in this case.

3.

For a mixture of liquid and vapor, 0 < q < 1 and the slope of the feed line is negative. The
feed line is a line between vertical and horizontal with a negative slope that goes toward the
equilibrium line.

4.

For sub-cooled liquid, q > 1 and the slope of the feed line is positive but less than infinity.

5.

For super-heated vapor, q < 0 and the slope of the feed line is also positive.

Quick Exercise. For the results from the last set of practice exercises, draw the feed line for
saturated liquid, saturated vapor, a mixture of liquid and vapor, sub-cooled liquid, and super-heated
vapor feed.
Energy Balance Relationship Between Reflux Ratio and Boil-up Ratio. Using an energy balance
around the entire distillation column, sometimes called an overall energy balance, it is possible to
show that the reflux ratio r and the boil-up ratio s are related by the following equation
s = (r + q)[xF xD] / [xB xF] + q 1

(2.27)

Thus the amount of vapor generated in the reboiler is tied to the amount of vapor condensed in the
condenser, which makes sense.
Summary Practice Exercises. Answer the following questions in order to practice what you have
learned in this second tutorial by considering the separation of propylene and propane (a C3 splitter)
at 200 psia. Let the feed be a 50-50 mol % mixture of saturated vapor and have a flow rate of 100
lbmol/h, xD = 0.99, and xB = 0.01. Also let the reflux ratio be r = 3.5.
1.

Make a yx plot for propylene and n-propane including the 45-degree line.

2.

Perform a graphical McCabe-Thiele analysis of this C3 splitter.

3.

How many total stages are there in this distillation column?

4.

Where is the feed stage?

5.

Calculate the boil-up ratio and make sure it is consistent with that shown on your McCabeThiele diagram.

6.

How much heat must be supplied to the reboiler for this separation to be performed as you
have designed it?

7.

What is the amount of cooling that needs to be supplied to the condenser?

8.

What are the liquid and vapor flow rates in the rectifying and stripping sections of the
distillation column?

9.

How many more stages would be required if we wanted product compositions of xD = 0.999
and xB = 0.001?

10. What would be the corresponding change in r, s, QR, and QC?