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Testing the limits of cryogenic distillation

By Mary Page Bailey |

CSIRO (Perth, Australia; www.csiro.au) and the University of Western Australia (www.uwa.edu.au) have developed a first-of-its-kind pilot plant for high-pressure cryogenic distillation processes. “Although cryogenic distillation is practiced in industry and there are some models that can be applied to cryogenic distillation, some gaps remain when it comes to high pressures. The facility will help to fill these gaps and better understand the fundamentals of distillation in temperature and pressure regions not previously explored,” explains Nick Burke, CSIRO research scientist. The plant can operate at temperatures as low as –70°C and at pressures as high as 50 bars, with modifications enabling operation up to 100 bars. A reflux condenser fabricated by CSIRO will allow operation at even lower temperatures.

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Views of the cryogenic distillation apparatus Source: CSIRO

Currently, the pilot plant’s work is aimed at processes for removing heavier hydrocarbons from natural gas prior to transformation to liquefied natural gas (LNG). “We can test different column internals and can operate under conditions that would not be considered in commercial facilities. In other words, we can push the limits of cryogenic distillation without the threat of deleterious process disturbances,” adds Burke. “Understanding where these limits are will enable industry to better optimize their processes.” He suggests that other applications that could benefit from high-pressure cryogenic pilot runs are air separation, CO 2 removal or noble-gas enrichment. The pilot column is 2 m high with a 50-mm diameter, and its maximum throughput is 20 L/min. The column can operate continuously and has autonomous process control.

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Integrated flow control of the pilot plant Source: CSIRO

Also, for floating LNG applications, the pilot plant’s distillation column is designed to oscillate and tilt to mimic motion from wind and waves. “All of the methods for calculating distillation efficiency are based on the assumption of a vertical distillation column. The facility will allow the development of new, more accurate models and methods for tilted and moving columns,” says Burke.

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