The separation of liquid mixtures into their various components is one of the major operations in the process industries, and distillation, the most widely used method of achieving this end, is the key operation in any oil refinery. In processing, the demand for purer products, coupled with the need for greater efficiency, has promoted continued research into the techniques of distillation. In engineering terms, distillation columns have to be designed with a larger range in capacity than any other types of processing equipment, with single columns 0.3-10 m in diameter and 3-75 m in height. Designers are required to achieve the desired product quality at minimum cost and also to provide constant purity of product even though there may be variations in feed composition. A distillation unit should be considered together with its associated control system, and it is often operated in association with several other separate units.

The vertical cylindrical column provides, in a compact form and with the minimum of ground requirements, a large number of separate stages of vaporisation and condensation. In this chapter the basic problems of design are considered and it may be seen that not only the physical and chemical properties, but also the fluid dynamics inside the unit, determine the number of stages required and the overall layout of the unit.

The separation of benzene from a mixture with toluene, for example, requires only a simple single unit as shown in Figure 11.1, and virtually pure products may be obtained. A more complex arrangement is shown in Figure 11.2 where the columns for the purification of crude styrene formed by the dehydrogenation of ethyl benzene are shown. It may be seen that, in this case, several columns are required and that it is necessary to recycle some of the streams to the reactor.

In this chapter consideration is given to the theory of the process, methods of distillation and calculation of the number of stages required for both binary and multicomponent systems, and discussion on design methods is included for plate and packed columns incorporating a variety of column internals.

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