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Retrofit unit boosts ethane and propane recoveries in natural gas plants

By Scott Jenkins |

Using a workhorse technology known as the gas-subcooled process (GSP), most natural gas plants recover between 85 and 90% of ethane in raw natural gas streams. Honeywell UOP (Des Plaines, Ill.; www.uop.com) has developed a modular retrofit unit designed to be installed on existing GSP units that boosts the recovery of ethane and propane from natural gas to 99% or higher.

Higher levels of ethane and propane recovery translate to extra profit for gas processors, who can sell the additional recovered ethane as feedstock for ethylene production and the additional recovered propane as feedstock for propylene production, rather than surrendering it to be burned as fuel, as it is in the conventional process.

The standard extraction of natural gas liquids (NGLs; mostly ethane, propane and butane) from natural gas involves condensing the NGLs from the gas stream using auto-refrigeration mechanisms and using distillation columns to separate the different NGLs. Refrigeration is achieved through the Joule-Thompson effect (using a pressure drop to allow gas to expand, creating a cooling effect) via a turboexpander, which removes heat as high-pressure gas expands. Depending on the richness of the feedstock, additional refrigeration using propane may also be utilized.

The new high-recovery retrofit unit piggybacks on the conventional approach, but adds an advanced process cycle that leverages residue gas vapors as an additional reflux for a new side column (diagram). The side column effectively extends the length of the existing demethanizer distillation column, allowing more ethane to be extracted from the residue gas and separated, explains Craig Ranta, business director for gas processing at UOP.

The pre-engineered unit is available as a drop-in retrofit package, but is also customizable to meet end-user specifications and equipment. The modular, skid-mounted approach facilitates installation and minimizes plant downtime, Ranta says, and payback on the capital investment can be realized in less than one year.

UOP’s first commercial retrofit unit is currently under construction and will start up at a customer site in the second quarter of 2018.

recovery of ethane and propane

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