Distillation has always been a critical and costly step in the manufacture of products in the petroleum, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries. Prior to the 1950s, companies had to rely on their own or purchased resources to acquire process-specific data for designing and operating distillation columns. Overall, this still holds true today. However, in many cases, it turned out, and continues to be, too expensive for any one company to build or operate generic pilot facilities for generating experimental data useful for process design and operation.
In the early 1950s, several U.S. companies decided to consider a different approach -- to pool their efforts for obtaining experimental distillation data using standard fluid systems, that they could then extend to their own specific fluid processes. Consequently, an independent corporation named Fractionation Research, Inc. was formed to carry out the experimental distillation program, and 36 U.S. petrochemical companies became charter members.
The concept of a shared technical resource such as FRI still has relevance today. Pressures on product and refinery margins have forced operators to find more efficient and higher capacity column internals. The scarcity of seasoned human resources have driven the need to boost engineering productivity. Thus, companies around the world continue to pool research monies annually to fund FRI. Today there are about seventy such companies, members of FRI. Over half are based outside the U.S. That the research is conducted in large scale equipment (1.2m and 2.4m diameter columns) under real conditions provides members with greater confidence that separations based on FRI technology will be achieved.
While the mission of early days focused primarily on producing experimental data from standard trays and packings, the effort today is balanced better with model development for prediction of efficiency and capacity, production of a computer program for rating and showing side-by-side comparisons of tray and packing devices, and testing of new tray and packing devices being brought to the marketplace.
Future news will cover such topics as the research facility at Oklahoma State University, the types of results produced, new devices tested, data released to the public, the design rating program, and benefits to consortium members.