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Introduction to Separation Process Engineering

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Since separations are ubiquitous in chemical plants and petroleum refineries, chemical engineers must be familiar with a variety of separation methods. This chapter introduces the importance of separations, the concept of equilibrium, mass transfer, and problem-solving methods.
This chapter is from the book

1.1 Importance of Separations

Why does chemical engineering require the study of separation techniques? Because separations are crucial in chemical engineering. A typical chemical plant is a chemical reactor surrounded by separators, as diagramed in the schematic flow sheet of Figure 1-1. Raw materials are prepurified in separation devices and fed to the chemical reactor; unreacted feed is separated from the reaction products and recycled back to the reactor. Products must be further separated and purified before they can be sold. This type of arrangement is very common. Examples for a variety of traditional processes are illustrated by Biegler et al. (1997), Chenier (2002), Couper et al. (2005), Matar and Hatch (2001), Shreve and Austin (1984), Speight (2002), and Turton et al. (2003), whereas recent processes often are shown in Chemical Engineering magazine. Chemical plants commonly have from 40% to 70% of both capital and operating costs in separations (Humphrey and Keller, 1997).

Figure 1-1

Figure 1-1 Typical chemical plant layout

Since separations are ubiquitous in chemical plants and petroleum refineries, chemical engineers must be familiar with a variety of separation methods. We will first focus on some of the most common chemical engineering separation methods: flash distillation, continuous column distillation, batch distillation, absorption, stripping, and extraction. These separations all contact two phases and can be designed and analyzed as equilibrium stage processes. Several other separation methods that can also be considered equilibrium stage processes will be briefly discussed. Chapters 17 and 18 explore two important separations—membrane separators and adsorption processes—that do not operate as equilibrium stage systems.

The equilibrium stage concept is applicable when the process can be constructed as a series of discrete stages in which the two phases are contacted and then separated. The two separated phases are assumed to be in equilibrium with each other. For example, in distillation, a vapor and a liquid are commonly contacted on a metal plate with holes in it. Because of the intimate contact between the two phases, solute can transfer from one phase to another. Above the plate the vapor disengages from the liquid. Both liquid and vapor can be sent to additional stages for further separation. Assuming that the stages are equilibrium stages, the engineer can calculate concentrations and temperatures without detailed knowledge of flow patterns and heat and mass transfer rates. Although this example shows the applicability of the equilibrium stage method for equipment built with a series of discrete stages, we will see that the staged design method can also be used for packed columns where there are no discrete stages. This method is a major simplification in the design and analysis of chemical engineering separations that is used in Chapters 2 to 14.

A second useful concept is that of a unit operation. The idea here is that although the specific design may vary depending on what chemicals are being separated, the basic design principles for a given separation method are always the same. For example, the basic principles of distillation are always the same whether we are separating ethanol from water, separating several hydrocarbons, or separating liquid metals. Consequently, distillation is often called a unit operation, as are absorption, extraction, etc.

A more general idea is that design methods for related unit operations are similar. Since distillation and absorption are both liquid-vapor contacting systems, the design is much the same for both. This similarity is useful because it allows us to apply a very few design tools to a variety of separation methods. We will use stage-by-stage methods where calculation is completed for one stage and then the results are used for calculation of the next stage to develop basic understanding. Matrix solution of the mass and energy balances will be used for detailed computer simulations.

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