The Reboiler

All machines have drivers. A distillation column is also a machine, driven by a reboiler. It is the heat duty of the reboiler, supplemented by the heat content (enthalpy) of the feed, that provides the energy to make a split between light and heavy components. A useful example of the importance of the reboiler in distillation comes from the venerable use of sugar cane in my home state of Louisiana.

If the cut cane is left in the fields for a few months, its sugar content ferments to alcohol. Squeezing the cane then produces a rather lowproof alcoholic drink. Of course, one would naturally wish to concentrate the alcohol content by distillation, in the still shown in Fig. 6.1.

The alcohol is called the light component, because it boils at a lower temperature than water; the water is called the heavy component, because it boils at a higher temperature than alcohol. Raising the top reflux rate will lower the tower-top temperature and reduce the amount of the heavier component, water, in the overhead alcohol product. But what happens to the weight of vapor flowing up through the trays? Does the flow go up, go down, or remain the same?

There are two ways to answer this question. Let’s first look at the reboiler. As the tower-top temperature shown in Fig. 6.1 goes down, more of the lighter, lower-boiling-point alcohol is refluxed down the tower. The tower-bottom temperature begins to drop, and the steam flow to the reboiler is automatically increased by the action of the temperature recorder controller (TRC). As the steam flow to the reboiler increases, so does the reboiler duty (or energy injected into the tower in the form of heat). Almost all the reboiler heat or duty is converted to vaporization. We will prove this statement mathematically later in this chapter. The increased vapor leaving the reboiler then bubbles up through the trays, and hence the flow of vapor is seen to increase as the reflux rate is raised.

Now let’s look at the reflux drum. The incremental reflux flow comes from this drum. But the liquid in this drum comes from the condenser. The feed to the condenser is vapor from the top of the tower. Hence, as we increase the reflux flow, the vapor rate from the top of the tower must increase. One way of summarizing these results is to say that the reflux comes from the reboiler.

The statement that the mass, or weight flow of vapor through the trays, increases as the reflux rate is raised is based on the reboiler being on automatic temperature control. If the reboiler were on manual control, then the flow of steam and the reboiler heat duty would remain constant as the reflux rate was increased, and the weight flow of vapor up the tower would remain constant as the top reflux rate was increased. But the liquid level in the reflux drum would begin to drop. The reflux drum level recorder controller (LRC) would close off to catch to falling level, and the overhead product rate would drop in proportion to the increase in reflux rate. We can now draw some conclusions from the foregoing discussion:

• The flow of vapor leaving the top tray of the tower is equal to the flow of reflux, plus the flow of the alcohol overhead
• The overhead condenser heat-removal duty is proportional to the reboiler heat duty.
• The weight flow of vapor in a tower is controlled by one factor and one factor only: heat.

An increase in reflux rate, assuming that the reboiler is on automatic temperature control, increases both the tray weir loading and the vapor velocity through the tray deck. This increases both the total tray pressure drop and the height of liquid in the tray’s downcomer. Increasing reflux rates, with the reboiler on automatic temperature control, will always push the tray closer to or even beyond the point of incipient flood.

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