Optimizing Tower Operating Pressure

Why are distillation towers designed with controls that fix the tower pressure?

Naturally, we do not want to overpressure the tower and pop open the safety relief valve. Alternatively, if the tower pressure gets too low, we could not condense the reflux. Then the liquid level in the reflux drum would fall and the reflux pump would lose suction and cavitate. But assuming that we have plenty of condensing capacity and are operating well below the relief valve set pressure, why do we attempt to fix the tower pressure? Further, how do we know what pressure target to select?

I well remember one pentane-hexane splitter in Toronto. The tower simply could not make a decent split, regardless of the feed or reflux rate selected. The tower-top pressure was swinging between 12 and 20 psig. The flooded condenser pressure control valve, shown in Fig. 5.1, was operating between 5 and 15 percent open, and hence it was responding in a nonlinear fashion (most control valves work properly only at 20 to 75 percent open). The problem may be explained as follows.

The liquid on the tray deck was at its bubble, or boiling, point. A sudden decrease in the tower pressure caused the liquid to boil violently. The resulting surge in vapor flow promoted jet entrainment, or flooding.

Alternately, the vapor flowing between trays was at its dew point. A sudden increase in tower pressure caused a rapid condensation of this vapor and a loss in vapor velocity through the tray deck holes. The resulting loss in vapor flow caused the tray decks to dump.

Either way, erratic tower pressure results in alternating flooding and dumping, and therefore reduced tray efficiency. While gradual swings in pressure are quite acceptable, no tower can be expected to make a decent split with a rapidly fluctuating pressure.

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