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Proceedings 22nd Saudi Japan Annual Symposium

Catalysts in Petroleum Refining & Petrochemicals

KFUPM Dhahran, Saudi Arabia Nov. 25-26, 2012

Process Design and Control of Dividing Wall Columns

Hiroya Seki1 , M. Shamsuzzoha2

Chemical Resources Laboratory, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Yokohama, Japan

Department of Chemical Engineering, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals,
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Dividing wall columns have gained increasing application due to their lower energy
consumption and lower investment costs compared with conventional distillation
column sequences. However, because of the increased design degrees of freedom,
optimal process design becomes exceedingly more difficult and still remains an open
issue. Also, the integrated nature of the column makes the process highly interacting,
and a process control system has to be designed with added care.
In this paper, process design methods of DWC are reviewed and a case study of the
DWC column design based on an efficient step-by-step method is introduced for
determining the optimal structure of the column. Based upon an extensive simulation
study, the optimal DWC structure is first determined by applying the shortcut method
to the sloppy configuration; the optimal internal flow distribution is then found from
the corresponding rigorous sloppy configuration. Challenges in the application of
model predictive control to DWCs are also discussed.
1. Introduction
Distillation is one of the most popular separation processes and will continue to be an important
process for the future because there is currently no other industrially viable alternative. Distillation is
responsible for a significant amount of the energy consumption of the worlds process industry and
energy saving with distillation would make a large contribution to reducing CO2 emission.
Process design and control of conventional distillation columns is a well-established area in chemical
engineering and often regarded as mature technology . Conventional distillation columns are almost
optimally designed with sophisticated energy integration technique. Also, the application of
constrained model predictive control has achieved significant energy saving in distillation column
operation. However, there is still a potential for considerable reduction of energy consumption if new
distillation arrangements are applied. Dividing wall columns (DWC) is one of such arrangements,
which is currently receiving a lot more attention from industry.

Figure 1 shows the basic structure of the DWC, in which the dividing wall is installed in a distillation
column shell configuring two separation zones, to realize the fully thermally coupled arrangement
also known as the Petlyuk column. The arrangement is basically for separating ternary mixtures, for
which two columns are required in a conventional arrangement. The reductions in the energy
consumption and capital cost occur due to the fact that only one column, reboiler and condenser are
needed, as compared to two complete conventional columns when a middle-cut is required.
Theoretical studies have shown that it can save around 30% of energy costs compared with a
conventional arrangement [1].
In DWCs, the entire separation task occurs in one thermally coupled column shell, which makes
column structure design much more difficult compared with conventional distillation columns. In fact,
the basic idea of the DWC has been known for over 70 years, and despite its high potential of the
economic benefits, a lack of reliable design and operation methods has prevented their commercial
application until recently.

Figure 1: The dividing wall column(DWC)

In the present study, process design methods of DWCs are briefly reviewed and a shortcut design
method is introduced for determining the DWC structure, including the location of the feed tray, the
side-stream tray, and the divided wall section, as well as the total number of trays in each main and
pre-fractionation section. Furthermore, challenges concerning process control of the DWC will be

2. Process Design
2. 1 Emergence of Dividing Wall Column Structure

To separate ternary mixtures, the conventional sequences comprising two columns is most
commonly used as shown in Figure 2:

Figure 2(a): Direct column sequence

Figure 2(b): Indirect column sequence

The sequence represented in Figure 2(a), which is called direct column sequence, is used when the
feed has a high concentration of the lightest components or when the separation of the middle
distillate and the heavy product is more difficult than that of the light and middle distillate. The light
component is withdrawn as a distillate in the first column and the rest of the product is sent from the
bottom of the first column to the second column to undertake the subsequent separation. The columns
are separated by a single liquid stream so they may be operated at different pressures in order to
perform the optimum separation. On the other hand, when the feed has a high concentration of the
heavy product or when the separation of the light from the middle distillate is relatively more
cumbersome, the indirect sequence shown in Figure 2(b) is utilized. The heavy product is first
separated then the distillate is fed to the second column for further separation. When a partial
condenser is used in the first column, the pressure in the second column needs to be lower than that of
the first column for the natural flow of the vapor to occur from the first column to the second column,
otherwise a compressor would be needed between the columns. If a total condenser is used, a pump
may be easily inserted, then the pressures in each column can be specified and optimized
Figure 3 shows an arrangement which requires three distillation columns for the separation. The
arrangement may be employed when the boiling points of the light, heavy and middle products are
close and the separation has to be done at low temperatures using lower quality utilities. This
configuration would also be considered when there is a high concentration of middle distillates in the
feed. The entire light component is separated in the top of the first column and the entire heavy
product in the bottom with the middle distillates being split between both these streams. The two
subsequent columns separate the light from the middle and the middle from the heavy products.
The configuration in Figure 4 splits the feed into two feeds for the second column that has a
side-draw as well. There are some similarities between this arrangement and the distributed sequence:
this configuration can be thought of as a distributed arrangement from which some of the condensers
and the reboilers have been removed. This strategy is preferred when there is a large amount of
middle distillate in the feed or if the splits between all the fractions are difficult. Both columns may

operate at different pressures in order to take advantage of utilities available at different temperatures.

Figure 3: Distributed column sequence

Figure 4: Pre-fractionator sequence

The Petlyuk configuration in Figure 5 represents an arrangement that can separate three or more
components using a single reboiler and a single condenser. This configuration has even more thermal
coupling than the pre-fractionator sequence, which increases efficiency. Since hold-ups due to the
intermediate reboiler and condenser are removed, there are more internal flows: the exchange of
vapor and liquid between the columns poses strict pressure and operability constraints.
The dividing wall column configuration, already shown in Figure 1, is the most compact and allows
for considerable capital saving. There is a partition between the feed and side-draw sections of the
column which provides greater capacity and increased separation efficiency yet still externally
resembles a normal side-draw column. This feature makes the retrofit of conventional columns into
DWCs easier. This column is thermodynamically identical to the Petlyuk column provided that there
is negligible heat transfer across the dividing wall of the column. The purity of the middle product
from a DWC is superior to that from a conventional side product column. It is because the middle
distillates usually form a strong split above and below the partition and the product is removed from
the side of the partition remote from the feed.
2.2 Structure design of the dividing wall column
Figure 6 illustrates the difficulty one must be faced with when he designs a DWC: there are more
degrees of design freedom and more variables to be fixed before design calculations can be performed.
With so many degrees of freedom, rigorous optimization in the design of DWC, which would be a
mixed integer constrained nonlinear optimization problem, is a challenging task.
Several studies [1-7] have been conducted to address the design of the DWC structure. Most of the
studies employed a step-by-step approach starting from a sloppy configuration comprising multiple
columns. Triantafyllou and Smith [1] proposed a fully thermally couple distillation column (FTCDC)
design using a three-column model shown in Figure 3. The method provides a good basis for

investigating the degrees of freedom and the number of trays in an easy manner; however, it requires
trial-error steps for matching the compositions of the interlinking streams. Amminudin et al. [2]
developed a semi-rigorous method for the initial design of an FTCDC based on the concept of
equilibrium stage composition. In their study, the FTCDC was divided into two separate columns to
eliminate interlinking and obtain an optimal initial design that could be confirmed through rigorous
simulation. Agrawal and Fidkowski [3] simplified the FTCDC structural design by eliminating one
interconnection between the pre-fractionator and main fractionator. Premkumar and Rangaiah [4]
utilized a three-column configuration for the initial design structure of the DWC in their study for the
retrofit of a conventional column system to a DWC. The initial structure obtained by a shortcut was
then optimized in a rigorous simulation step.

Figure 5: The Petlyuk configuration

Figure 6: The DWC design problem

Recently, Lee et al. [5-7] proposed an efficient design method for determining the optimal design
structure of a dividing wall column. The internal section of the DWC is divided into four separate
sections and matched to the sloppy arrangement with three conventional simple columns. The light
and heavy key component mole-fractions are used as the design variables in each column. They found
that the structure that gives superior energy efficiency in the shortcut sloppy case also brings superior
energy efficiency in the DWC, while the optimal internal flow distribution of the DWC is different
from that obtained from the sloppy configuration.
In this paper, a case study using a step-by-step design method is presented . First, the DWC structure
is determined by applying a shortcut method to the sloppy configuration shown in Figure 7(a). The
structure of each column was determined by using the well known Fenske-Underwood-Gilliland
method; the minimum number of theoretical stages at total reflux (Nm) was estimated by the Fenske

equation and the minimum reflux for an infinite number of theoretical equilibrium stages (R m) by the
Underwood equation. In this study, the actual reflux ratio (R) was chosen as 1.2Rm. The feed tray
location was determined by assuming that the relative feed location was constant as the reflux ratio
changed from total reflux to a finite value.
Once the column structure is fixed, the distribution of the internal liquid and vapor flows to the
pre-fractionator and main section is the most significant factor to affect the energy consumption and
separation efficiency among all other design variables. Furthermore, the internal flow distribution is
also the main factor to determine the easiness for realization of the DWC structure. The optimal
internal flow distribution is found for the corresponding rigorous sloppy configuration shown in
Figure 7(b). Finally, the rigorous DWC model shown in Figure 8 is used to verify the result.

Figure 7(a) : Shortcut sloppy configuration

Figure 7(b) Rigorous sloppy configuration

Figure 8: Rigorous dividing wall column model

2.3 Case study
Separation of the ternary mixture, benzene, toluene and p-xylene, has been investigated through
simulation study to check the effects of column configuration on the DWC design. The shortcut

sloppy case, rigorous sloppy and rigorous DWC have been investigated. The feed condition of the
ternary mixture is assumed to be saturated liquid consisting of benzene: 33mol%, toluene: 33mol%,
and p-xylene: 34mol% with the nominal feed rate of 100kmol/h. The operating pressure is 1050 KPa
and the top, side draw and bottom product purity are required as 99.5 mol%, 91 mol% and 92 mol%,
respectively. For the design calculations, UniSim Design has been utilized.
The result of the simulation is given in Table 1. From the result of the shortcut column in Table 1, the
number of trays for the pre-fractionator column is set as that of the 1st column (20 stages) and the
number of trays for the main column is chosen as the sum of the 2nd and 3rd column trays (32+29+2
stages i.e., reboiler and condenser). As shown in the table, the feed tray of the DWC is the 21th tray
and the dividing wall is located from the 21th tray (i.e., feed tray of the 2nd column) to the 41th tray
(i.e., sum of tray number of the 2nd column after feed and before feed tray of the 3rd column). The
side stream is drawn from the 32nd tray.
Figures 9 and 10 compare the temperature and composition profiles for the 1st column in the
rigorous sloppy configuration and the pre-fractionator in the DWC. These figures clearly indicate the
similarity in the temperature and composition profiles. Although the temperature and composition
profiles of the 2nd and 3rd columns are not shown here, the similarity to those of the DWC main
columns has been observed.

Table 1: Main structure of the equivalent conventional column configuration

Light key
Heavy key
Ext. reflux ratio
Total stage no.
Feed ttage no.
Rectify vapor(kmol/h)
Rectify liquid(kmol/h)
Stripping vapor(kmol/h)
Stripping liquid(kmol/h)

1st column
benzene : 0.0170
p-xylene : 0.0129

2nd column
benzene : 0.050
toluene : 0.005

Reflux ratio= 1.2 time the minimum reflux ratio

3rd column
toluene: 0.080
p-xylene : 0.040

Figure 9: Temperature and composition vs. tray position (from top) for 1st rigorous column

Figure 10: Temperature and composition vs. tray position (from top) for pre-fractionator

3. Process Control of Dividing Wall Columns

3.1 Distillation column control
Process control of distillation columns has been a challenging problem and studied extensively
because distillation columns are truly multivariable interacting processes. In many cases, the top and
bottom compositions are chosen as controlled variables and the reflux flow rate and bottom boil up
are manipulated to regulate the controlled variables at their desired setpoint. Control systems are
designed for the 2x2 system. Sometimes, the system becomes ill-conditioned due to the strong
interaction, especially for high purity columns, presenting a potential for severe operational
Application of the advanced control, namely constrained model predictive control (MPC)[9], has
been a great success in the distillation column control. Significant energy saving and throughput
increase have been realized with the help of the MPC's functionality of steady state optimization
based on the linear program. Constraint switching between one of the composition variables and the
column differential pressure may be incorporated to achieve the throughput increase. Energy saving
has been achieved by incorporating the column pressure setpoint as an additional manipulated
variables[10, 11]. The problem of ill-conditioning can be properly handled in the MPC algorithm.
3.2 Optimizing control of DWC
Challenges with process control of the DWC would be the same or even larger compared with those
for conventional distillation columns. The control system for the DWC may be a 3x3 system, with the

purity of the middle product and the side draw flow rate as the additional controlled and manipulated
variables respectively. The problem of ill-conditioning persists, so that the control system has to be
designed more carefully. Preferably, the possibility of an ill-conditioned system should be checked
and removed at the process design phase.
Manipulation of the column pressure as an optimizing variable for energy saving and increased
throughput may have to be carefully done, because the large exchange of vapor and liquid between
the columns poses strict pressure and operability constraints with DWCs.
There is one more important manipulated variable, namely the liquid split between the
pre-fractionator and main-fractionator (in most cases, the vapor split is not included as a manipulated
variable due to operational reasons). Since there are more manipulated variables than controlled
variables, the system is a good candidate for on-line optimization. Figure 11 shows the relation
between the liquid and vapor splits and the energy consumption of the column (reboiler duty). There
is a well-defined minimum in the energy consumption of the column, which should be the optimal
operation point. Unlike the optimization problem with the conventional column, it is highly likely
that the optimal operation point of the DWC is unconstrained. The problem here is the optimal
operating point (the value of the optimal split) is never constant, dependent upon the operational
conditions such as feed composition and column throughput. It would be cumbersome and difficult
to calculate the optimal operating point for each operating condition. In such a case, the
self-optimizing control [12] may be designed and readily applied.

Figure 11 Optimization landscape for the DWC control

4. Conclusions
This study introduces a shortcut method for the design of the DWC structure. The method utilizes the
three conventional column configuration equivalents to the DWC to find the proper DWC structure in
a simple manner. The DWC designed by the method shows little difference from that through
optimization study in terms of energy consumption. Also, challenges with process control of DWCs
have been briefly discussed.

The authors would like to acknowledge Japan Petroleum Institute(JPI) and Japan Cooperation Center
Petroleum (JCCP) for their researcher exchange program. The second author would like to
acknowledge the support provided by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST)
through the Science & Technology Unit at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM)
for funding this work through project No. 11-ENE1643-04 as part of the National Science Technology
and Innovation Plan.
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