Distillation is bubbling up

High capacity utilization is prompting significant efforts to optimize column performance

By Seán Ottewell

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For instance, in early January Emerson Process Management, Austin, Texas, announced the acquisition of The Automation Group (TAG), Houston. The deal will help Emerson expand its technical and management services for the design, engineering and implementation of automation systems, especially for distillation-based processes.

Yokogawa, Tokyo, which will supply an integrated production control system to the new Shell Eastern Petrochemicals complex in Singapore, was awarded the contact “…because we have the ability to improve the operability and safety of large-scale plants by integrating their production control and safety instrumented systems,” notes Teruyoshi Minaki, Yokogawa’s executive vice president.

Safety of distillation operations is receiving increasing emphasis in response to major incidents in the last couple of years.

Column internals that offer better performance such as this MD tray remain in high demand. Source: UOP

“Safety is now the number one consideration, so much so that it has become easier to get budget to improve safety than to improve efficiency,” says Harpreet Gulati, a product director for SimSci-Esscor, South Lake Forest, Calif., a unit of Invensys Process Systems (IPS), London. SimSci-Esscor’s heritage is in distillation simulation, with its PRO/II well established in that area. “And, importantly, we partner with various third-party companies to provide enhanced product capabilities using it,” he adds.

Among IPS’s partners is Koch-Glitsch, which enhances PRO/II with a number of its own modules. For example, Ratefrac performs rigorous rate-based distillation modelling while Batchfrac handles design and analysis of batch reactors and distillation columns.

This partnership also extends to Koch-Glitsch’s own KG-Tower tray and packing hydraulics software. Here, PRO/II has the option of converting tower hydraulic information it calculates to a file that can be read directly by KG-Tower, eliminating the need for manual transfer of data. PRO/II also supports hydraulic sizing and rating for a wide array of structured packings from Koch-Glitsch.

It’s a similar story with Sulzer Chemtech, as PRO/II supports hydraulic sizing and rating for a wide range of structured packings from that company. 

“At our latest user meeting, both companies were showing their own in-house design packages for equipment such as high efficiency packings. So they start with PRO/II, which can design the overall column and take account of factors such as fluid types, flows and viscosities. Then they can use their own packages to find, for example, how many meters of packing are required in a particular column,” notes Gulati.

Other SimSci-Essscor partnerships involve software supplied by organizations as diverse as FRI, Det Norske Veritas, Innotec and the Institut Français du Pétrole.

The number two consideration for the distillation process is now energy management in an around columns, according to Gulati. “We’re talking here about real-time heat and material balances,” he says.
Years ago, if there was a problem in the column, operations or technical support staff assigned to that particular unit would have to start by taking readings, calculating heat and mass balances, plugging this information into some sort of model and then deciding on a way forward, he says. “It’s all online today, so every few minutes the data can be reconciled. So we can calculate the overall yield, for example, or how much energy is being used. It can also be used for predictive analysis. For example, what increase in efficiency would I get if I clean the re-boiler now?”

IPS is taking what Gulati describes as a holistic approach to distillation optimization. “By combining maintenance, visualisation, data and design/modeling together, we can immediately identify any potential problems and alert maintenance staff. In this way, the cost of problems can be quantified and they get sorted quickly.”

Overall, while business is good for those involved in distillation, a major constraint is emerging: a lack of skilled labor.

“Companies like ours — contractors — are very short of people to do project development,” says UOP’s Sturtevant. “Lots of training simulator operators will be retiring in the next ten years, so we need to train the next generation. But there is a real problem finding people to do this training now. The engineering companies are getting most of the talent,” notes Gulati.

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