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Special Article

An Introduction to Petroleum Refining


Technology & Management
Part-6: Crude Distillation
OM P. GOYAL
E-mail: opgoyal@yahoo.com

rude Processing is the first major unit operation in a refinery. It is simply a physical
separation of the multi-component fractions
having different boiling ranges. When conversion
technologies were not invented, the crude fractions
from primary distillation itself were accepted as
finished products, known as fuel oil no.1 to 6. Later,
they got classified as fuel gas, naphtha/gasoline,
kerosene, diesel, industrial fuel and bunker fuel.
As research in petroleum refining technology
generated better know-how and know-why information, refining grew in multiple directions better products, more products, more applications, more
grades of a product, more productive techniques
of handling crude, minimizing its waste, and so on.
But, crude fractionation has remained at the heart
of a refinery.
CRUDE FRACTIONATION
Given in Table-1 are the typical boiling ranges
(both ASTM and TBP) of various crude fractions
and in Table-2 are typical yields of various cuts of
a crude oil. Obviously, no method will indicate any
two subsequent cuts having a boiling gap the
initial boiling point of a heavier fraction being
higher than the final boiling point of the immediately lighter fraction. In principle, the initial crude
fractionation can be held at such a low pressure as
2-3 atmospheres that it is simply known as atmospheric fractionation. This is the minimum pressure
required to handle the hydraulics in the system.
When the vapor loads are large, generally due to
crude containing more of light hydrocarbons, the
distillation column becomes too fat. Hence, a topping column or a flash tower to knock off light
material precedes it.
The crude fractionation unit operating at mild
pressure is simply known as the crude distillation
unit (CDU). The bottoms of this unit contain a lot

CHEMICAL WEEKLY

of material that is light enough to be a good blendstock for products or feedstock for downstream
conversion units. The separation can be achieved
by simply fractionating it under a vacuum condition. Such a unit is therefore known as vacuum distillation unit (VDU). See Figure-6.1 for a typical
CDU and Figure-6.2 for a typical VDU.
TABLE-1
BOILING RANGE OF TYPICAL
CRUDE OIL FRACTIONS
Boiling Range, OF
Fraction
Butanes and lighter
Light straight run
naphtha
Heavy straight
run naphtha
Kerosene
Light gas oil
Atmospheric gas oil
Vacuum gas oil
Vacuum short residue

ASTM

TBP

90 - 220

90-190

180 - 400
330 - 540
420 - 640
550 - 830
750 - 1050
1050+

190-380
380-520
520-610
610-800
800-050
1050+

TABLE-2
TYPICAL YIELD FROM ARABIAN
LIGHT CRUDE[12]
Products
Gas
Gasoline
Kerosene
Gas oil
VGO
Waxy distillate
Residue

Cut range,o C

Wt%

C1-C4
C5-150
150-250
250-350
350-370
370-575
575+

0.7
15.2
17.4
18.3
3.6
28.8
16.0

CDU and VDU are designed to process a crude


or crude-mix as specified in a crude assay. The
number of trains is decided on the basis of type
and number of crudes to be processed, unit turndown ratio, turnaround time, capacities and a tradeAUGUST 5, 2003 n 187

Special Article
AIR-COOLED
OVERHEAD CONDENSERS

ST
AR
T

Crude (CR )

WATER COOLED
CONDENSERS

CRUDE
DISTILLATION
TOWER

GAS TO GAS PROCESSING


OHD DRUM

REFLUX
STRIPPERS
PA-1

FRESH
WATER

ST

PA-2
DESALTER

LT. NAPHTHA TO TREATING / BLENDING

Hv. NAPHTHA FOR BLENDING

ST

PA-3

KERO / ATF TO PRODUCT

ST

WATER
EFFLUENT

LT. GAS OIL FOR DIESEL BLENDING

ST

Hv. G.O. TO BLENDING / FCC - FEED

FLASH ZONE
ST

REDUCED CRUDE (RC) / LONG RESID (LR)

LEGEND:

FURNACE
ST=SUPERHEATED STRIPPING STEAM; PA-1/2/3 = PUMP AROUND FOR INTER STAGE COOLING
= CRUDE / PRODUCT EXCHANGER

OVERHEAD COOLING SYSTEM

RC/LR
(EX-CDU)

OVERHEAD VACCUM SYSTEM


ST
NC

CW

VACUUM
TOWER

ST
AR
T

Figure 6.1: Crude Distillation Unit

= WATER COOLED PRODUCT / PA COOLERS

OHD DRUM
CR

VAC. GAS OIL


STRIPPERS

CR
ST
ST

ST
FLASH
ZONE

Figure 6.2: Vacuum Distillation Unit (VDU)


188 n AUGUST 5, 2003

MEDIUM OIL

HEAVY OIL
METALS CUT

FURNACE
ST

LIGHT OIL

CR

SHORT RESIDUE (SR)


Note: Heat Recovery / Cooling needs of Side-Streams (SS)
are decided by their downstream disposal (Processing or Blending)

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Special Article
off with storage facilities and overall costs. The
products to be produced are specified with their
cut-ranges and routing & destination of products.
Products of CDU are naphtha, kerosene, light and
heavy virgin gas oil streams (LVGO & HVGO) and
reduced crude/long residue (RC/ LR). The products of VDU are vacuum gas oil (VGO), a number
of side-streams drawn of varying viscosity and the
short residue (SR). The product pattern/slate of a
CDU & VDU is evolved by a refining optimization
program, although quite a bit of it is now a matter
of technical common sense.
A typical crude train includes a host of large
pieces of equipment such as crude desalter, flash
drum (optional depending on crude quality), crude
preheat recovery exchangers, crude heater, crude
column, side stream strippers, transfer line, overhead drum, overhead condensers product coolers
and pumps and net gas compressor, if required.
Keeping all these in mind, the design features and
typical processing conditions are specified. And,
crude fractionation is to be well supported by crude
feed preparation.
CRUDE FEED PREPARATION
During oil production, regardless of how effective a method (including electrostatic coalescing)
has been used, there will be some remnant water
with crude. Such water content will vary with the
efficiency of dehydration equipment achieving levels generally as low as 0.1 to 0.3%. Since this water
is the salt carrier, the amount of salt will depend on
water salinity and volume remaining after dehydration[1].
Desalting of crude oil
Crude requires desalting to minimize fouling and
corrosion caused by salt deposition on heat transfer surfaces and acids formed by decomposition of
the chloride salts. Also, some metallic compounds
dissolved in crude-water emulsion cause catalyst
de-activation in the downstream catalytic conversion units. In view of this, as all crudes contain some
quantity of salts, a desalter is now a regular feature
of refinery hardware. As the salt in the crude is in
the form of dissolved or suspended salt crystals in
CHEMICAL WEEKLY

water, emulsified with the crude oil, the basic principle is to break the emulsion and wash out the salt
with water. The desalters are not without problems
water/oil mixing efficiency, water-wetting of suspended solids, wash water separation all these
get affected by the pH maintained, specific gravity
& viscosity of crude oil and water-to-oil volume
ratio. Although water draw-off from crude storage
tanks helps drain out substantial amount of salts
together with fine sand/clay/soil/iron oxide & sulfide
particles, the desalter renders the secondary function of further removing these so that the resultant
downstream problems are minimized.
Since desalting is best performed at temperature
240-300o F (115-150o C) depending upon crude API
and degree of water wash, desalters are located midstream in crude preheat exchanger train. This results in loss of heat to water exiting. As regards oilwater emulsion-breaking and phase-separation, it
is augmented by adding chemicals or applying high
potential electric field. In a single stage desalting,
90-95% efficiency is obtained and in the two-stage
desalting about 99%. Recommended is pH=6 to 8.
Make-up water averages at 4-5% on crude oil charge
and is obviously added to the second stage of the
desalter[2].
Crude preflash
Given the API gravity and a distillation test (usually TBP, but preferably ASTM) on a sample of an
oil fraction, it is possible to calculate the percentage of the mixture that could be flashed off at any
specified temperature and pressure[3]. The pre-flash
column can be installed suitably on the crude
preheating path, and more often than not, immediately after the crude preheat train. One can handle
the vapor and liquid ex-flash column in separate
fractionators. Unless the crude is very light, some
refiners choose to avoid preflash and go for atmospheric distillation in a single column as shown in
Figure-6.1, whereas others go for multi-column
CDU.
Sometimes, the lower boiling fractions, which
are vaporized by heat supplied in the preheat exchangers, are separated in the flash drum and flow
directly to the flash zone of the fractionator. The
AUGUST 5, 2003 n 189

Special Article
liquid is pumped through the furnace to the tower
flash zone. This results in a smaller and lower cost
furnace and lower furnace outlet temperatures for
the same quantity of overhead streams produced.

side-stream in a separate small stripping tower containing about 4-8 trays with steam introduced under
the bottom tray. The steam and stripped light ends
are returned back to the vapor zone of the crude
column above the side-stream draw-off.

CDU OPERATION
CDU overhead
After desalting crude is pumped through a series
of heat exchangers and its temperature raised to
about 550o F (288o C) by heat exchange with products, and pump-around (intermediate refluxes)
streams. It is then further heated to about 750o F
(400o C) in a direct fired heater and charged to the
flash zone of the atmospheric fractionator. The furnace discharge temperature is sufficiently high to
cause vaporization of all products withdrawn above
the flash zone plus 10-20% of the bottoms product.
Crude preheat train and crude heaters are covered
elsewhere in the series.

The overhead condensers on the atmospheric


tower condense the pentane and heavier fractions
of the vapor that flow out from tower top. This is
the light gasoline portion of the overhead, containing some propane and butanes and essentially all
of the higher-boiling components in the tower overhead vapors. A part of the condensed overhead is
returned to tower as reflux and the balance is sent
to the stabilization section of the gas plant, where
propane and butanes are separated as C5180o F(C5
82 o C) light straight-run gasoline. Sometimes, the
stabilization section is installed as a part of CDU.

Feed temperature
Pumparounds
In CDU, the temperature of crude feed is limited
by thermal cracking of hydrocarbons. This is
avoided to protect the thermal equipment from
coke-up & fouling and degradation of the virgin
products present in the crude. Likewise, the temperature of LR feed to VDU is maintained as high
as possible, guided by similar conditions and aspects.
Flash zone
About 10-20% over-flash allows some
fractionation to occur on the trays just above the
flash zone by providing internal reflux in excess of
the side-stream withdrawals. Addition of a few trays
below the flash zone and injecting dry steam below the bottom tray helps strip the remaining gas
oil from the liquid in the flash zone and to produce
a high flash point bottoms.
Side-stream withdrawal
The liquid side-stream withdrawn from the tower
contain low boiling components, which lower the
flash point, because the lighter products pass through
the heavier products and are in equilibrium with them
on every tray. Such light ends are stripped from each
190 n AUGUST 5, 2003

In order to reduce the top diameter of the tower,


the size of the overhead condensers and the liquid
loading over the length of the tower, intermediate
heat removal streams are used to generate external
reflux below the side-stream removal points. This
can be achieved either by returning a part of the
cooled side-stream back to the point below its withdrawal or going in for pump-around reflux. The
later is preferred as it provides better tower control.
VDU OPERATION
The furnace outlet temperatures required for atmospheric pressure distillation of the heavier fractions of crude oil are so high that thermal cracking
would occur, with the resultant loss of product and
equipment fouling. These materials are therefore
distilled under vacuum because the boiling temperature decreases with a lowering of the pressure,
which could be as low as 25 to 50 mm Hg in the
vacuum tower flash zone area.
Steam injection
To improve vaporization, the effective pressure
is lowered further by injecting steam to the furnace
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Special Article
inlet and at the vacuum tower bottom. Injection of
steam to the furnace inlet increases the furnace tube
velocity and minimizes coke formation in the furnace, as well as decreases the total HC partial pressure. The amount of stripping steam is a function
of the boiling range of the feed and the fraction
vaporized. It amounts to 10 to 50 lbs/Bbl feed.
Furnace outlet temperature
Furnace outlet temperature is a function of the
boiling range of the feed and the fraction vaporized as well as the feed-coking characteristics. High
tube velocities and steam addition minimize coke
formation, and furnace outlet temperatures in the
range of 730-850o F (388-454o C) are generally used.
It is essential that a vacuum tower is designed with
minimum pressure loss. A few mm decrease in it
saves substantially the operating cost. The lower
operating pressures cause significant increase in the
volume of vapor load, requiring towers of much
larger diameter.
Wash section
The wash trays minimize the metals content in
the heaviest vacuum distillate to avoid difficulties
in the downstream lubricating oil production plants.
Heavy distillate from the wash trays is recycled to
the heater inlet or withdrawn as metals cut. When
processing naphthenic residues, a neutralization
section may be added to the fractionator.
But, whenever structured packing is used for
wash zone, it should comprise single packing type
as the inevitable liquid build up at the interface of
the packing blocks can under some liquid flow
situation coke up pre-matured and thus seriously
affect the unit operation.
A deep cut is often taken to essentially increase
heavy gas oil yield, but it depends on the efficiency
of the wash section, where it is to ensure that no
entrained asphaltene liquid from the flash zone escapes this section and reaches the vacuum heavy
gas oil (VHGO) draw-off. Wash section also washes
down the organo-metallic compounds, which are
high boiling compounds [4]. Any extension of the
VHGO cut-point makes the residue heavier requirCHEMICAL WEEKLY

ing flux (diluent) to meet fuel oil specification. Net


shrinkage of the residues is the eventual goal.
Tray blanking
Sometimes it might be necessary to partially
blank some trays in order to improve vapor velocities so as to improve column performance. In a case
study, on an average, 30% of the valves on trays
were blanked off[5]. Gamma ray scanning is a useful technique to know about the inside state of the
column.
Overhead and vacuum system
The vacuum unit can be designed to produce
distillates that are suitable to produce lubricating
oils by downstream units. Vacuum is created using
steam ejectors equipped with barometric condensers. Vacuum pumps could also be used but for large
size units steam ejectors get techno-economically
selected. The size & number of ejectors & condensers are calculated on the basis of the extent of
vacuum and the quality of vapors handled. For a
flash zone pressure of 25 mmHg, three ejector
stages are usually required. The first stage condenses
the steam and compresses the non-condensable
gases, while the second and third stages remove
the non-condensable gases from the condensers.
The vacuum produced is limited to the vapor pressure of the water used in the condensers. If colder
water is supplied to the condensers, a lower absolute pressure can be obtained in the vacuum tower.
COLUMN INTERNALS
Before the 1960s, the bubble cap tray was the
standard form of tray for most refinery applications.
Then came the rapid use of sieve and valve trays,
accounting for perhaps 95% of all trays used. Then
came the random packing in many different shapes.
But, major change was seen by the introduction of
structured packing in 1980s as a high efficiency,
high capacity fractionation device. It found widespread use in vacuum columns, where now, as then,
its high capacity characteristics were invaluable for
debottlenecking. It is usually the preferred choice
for new vacuum columns[6]. Apart from pumparound zones, packing is infrequently used in a
AUGUST 5, 2003 n 191

Special Article
new CDU. But, it is used in preflash columns, which
can be subject to foaming. There are examples of
having selectively switched over to structured packing in order to solve fractionation problems and to
obtain higher capacity[7].
In high pressure columns, as pressure increases
the specific liquid rate increases and the difference
in phase density decreases. These factors encourage the extent of vapor back-mixing a phenomenon which contributes to reduced efficiency in
packed beds. It is necessary to adequately separate
the two phases in the feed inside the column through
a properly designed distributor kept cleared of any
packing so that hydra-dynamics is streamlined.
SIGNIFICANT DESIGN FEATURES
1. Although to be specified, the CDU and VDU
are generally designed to achieve a capacity
turndown of 50%.
2. In case of multiple trains, heat integration is
largely maximized within the streams of a CDU
or VDU. However, it might limit the advantage
of heat integration. So, integration within a CDU
and a VDU is encouraged, but limited to the same
train. For example, CDU train-A will be heat integrated with VDU-train-A. Likewise CDU trainB will be heat integrated with VDU-train B.
Crossover heat integration is avoided to keep the
train totally independent. As is generally the case,
the trains being identical, crossover heat integration does not offer any advantage.
3. The degree of fractionation between the distillate products from the crude columns gets normally decided by the gap between the 95%
ASTM distillation temperature of the lower boiling fraction and the 5% ASTM distillation temperature of the higher boiling fraction. Normally,
it is aimed to achieve no less than 15o C between
overhead & kerosene and 10o C between kerosene & diesel.
4. The side-streams from the crude column are so
stripped to meet the flash point requirements of
kerosene and diesel (say 46o C and 56o C min
respectively).
5. Water charged to the desalter is preferentially
made up of stripped water from sour water stripper. If the crude unit does not contemplate a
192 n AUGUST 5, 2003

desalter, caustic/ammonia injection facilities are


provided to protect the overhead system from
corrosion. Further, desalter water laden with salts
can be sent to waste water treatment facility after degassing.
6. The type of trays (sieve, valve etc.), packing
(structured or random) or section-wise both
for the main column and side-stream strippers
are specified. A crude tower is normally
equipped with 40-60 trays depending on several factors. The top trays are exposed to H2 S
and hence ammonia may have to be used to
neutralize its effect. Appropriate alloy is used
as material of construction (MOC) of the top
few trays. Likewise, the heavy gas oil section is
exposed to highly corrosive organic acids in
vapor state, requiring alloy trays and column
internal lining. Rest of the tower can largely be
made of carbon steel, unless crude characteristics dictate differently.
7. The crude heaters, as well as vacuum heaters,
are designed to fire single or multiple liquid and/
or gas fuels of varying quality. Heaters must
not suffer any loss of capacity or performance
due to any swings in fuel. As also, the mechanical cleaning and on-the run cleaning aspects are
duly considered.
8. Some streams go hot/warm to downstream units.
But, in the event that these need be sent to storage, adequate cooling facilities exist to cool
them to the temperatures below the recommended maximum rundown temperatures.
9. The sizing of net gas compressor is important
and hence, % extra capacity to be packed has
to be carefully decided to take care of changes
in pressure, MW of gas, the wear & tear affecting the full load, etc. The gas concentration unit
is covered elsewhere in greater details in the
series.
10. Control systems are the brain of a refinery. It is
essential that these, including the complete strategy, be specified and checked by expert hands.
These must include all inside controls and inter-unit controls, particularly light ends control.
11. If the unit is going to cater to asphalt manufacture, lube-oil manufacture, petrochemical
manufacture, etc. the battery limit conditions are
well-specified accordingly.
12. If the unit involves revamp, the design consiCHEMICAL WEEKLY

Special Article
derations are separately spelt out[8]. Special
treatment is required to the subject of retrofitting any equipment, in general, and vacuum
column, in particular[9].
TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDELINES[10]
All parameters/variables in distillation have to be
manipulated in a certain range. Combined effect is
what matters. A problem arising in one area will result in a problem in another, e.g.; excessive build up
in a re-boiler or tower bottom or tray/down-comer
will cause entrainment in the tower. Poor yield and/
or quality of product withdrawn from the fractionator
is attributed to one or more of these reasons:

Operating conditions not in order


Instruments and/or control system malfunctioning
Wrong lab results; and
Equipment damage.

Flooding/entrainment/weeping/dumping are
commonly known problems of hydraulic inequilibrium in a distillation column. At lower vapor velocities, the plate efficiency is poor due to poor
contact. At high vapor velocities, it is poor due to
entrainment, splashing, foaming, coning and seal
blowing. Colder reflux is good, but can overload
trays/downcomers. A high fluid gradient can cause
weeping. Dislodged tray/manway/downcomer/sealstrip/distributor/packings/supports; improper orientation/plugging of distributors; presence of foam;
operation near critical pressure etc. can cause serious problems. Presence of entrainment in overhead
vapor, temperature control, pumparounds, product
withdrawal temperature and rates, operation of condensers and reboilers etc. require regular attention.
The indications of flooding are: poor quality product; little temperature gradient; high differential
pressure and fluctuating tower pressure. Flooding
can be corrected by reducing vapor flow, as well as
liquid flow. The indications of dry trays are: poor
quality products; little temperature gradient; low
differential pressure, and fluctuating tower pressure.
Dry trays may result from either an overdraw of
one of the products as side-stream, or excessive
heat input to the tower, or lack of internal reflux, or
their combinations.
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A great surge in pressure can upset or damage


trays, blow off valves and tear off bubble caps, if
there are any. If water slug gets into the system
not handling water as a component, but operating
at sufficiently high temperatures, this can vaporize at once and can cause serious surges due to its
expansion about 1600 times that of liquid volume.
If the trapped water cannot be removed through
the overhead system, it must be removed through
the bottom. Vacuum columns are more vulnerable
to surges as the vapour/steam expansion at
vacuum condition is very high. More information
related to vacuum column troubleshooting is available[11]. In case of condensers:
1. Vent location is important. Nozzle sizes and condensate removal rate are also very important;
2. Inert gas reduces heat transfer and may cause
start-up problems;
3. Inert/air trapping on the coolant side must be
avoided. Noncondensibles, particularly in small
invisible quantities, can cause cyclic upsets.
During troubleshooting, the engineers concerned
must have full knowledge of:
Fluid properties and process requirements
Column operating and design data
Material and heat balance
Instrumentation and controls including configurations, functioning, calibration/tuning, accuracy
and confidence level
Column internals and heat transfer equipment
Materials of construction
Column loading and reflux ratios/rates
Plant tie-ins and their actual versus desired operating situation
Operating limitations
Effect of variations in operating parameters
Related distillation theory and vapor liquid equilibrium diagram
Inspection history (fouling/corrosion/erosion) of
the equipment , and
Modification history from inception till date.
AUGUST 5, 2003 n 193

Special Article
Good knowledge of the vapor liquid equilibrium
diagram is essential to diagnose distillation problems. One must know the correct interpretation of
their parameters and their effects. For example,
contrary to common belief, if the bottom heat is
raised without making any other change, the column pressure starts coming down. This is because
the concentration of the low vapor pressure material in the overhead stream increases.
REFERENCES
1. Burris Donald R; Desalting Crude Oil; Encyclopedia of Chemical Processing and Design
(ECPD); Vol.14, Marcel Dekker, Inc.
2. Gary James H.; Handwerk Glenn E.; Petroleum
Refining: Technology and Economics; 3rd Ed;
Chapter 4: Crude Distillation; Marcel Dekker, Inc;
1994.
3. Liddle C.J; Distillation, Flash; ECPD; Vol.16.
4. Joshi M.K. and Banik S.; Recent Trends in Distillation High Lift Vacuum Considerations &

194 n AUGUST 5, 2003

Case Studies. Hydrocarbon Technology (HT);


15 th February 1994.
5. Sur P. and Satheesan V.N.; Vacuum Column Revamp at Haldia Refinery; HT; 15th Feb. 1994.
6. Reavy W; Distillation Unit Internals Their
Impact on Profit; HT; 15th February 1994.
7. Hunkeler R. et al; Use of Structured-Packings
for Increasing Diesel Production; HT; 15th February 1994.
8. Negin Kenneth M; Vacuum and Crude Oil Revamps Design Considerations; ECPD, Vol. 60;
pp 230-249.
9. Lieberman Norman P; and Lieberman Elizabeth
T; Vacuum Columns, Retrofit; ECPD; Vol. 60,
pp 205-218.
10. Goyal Om P.; Troubleshooting; ECPD; Vol.59;
1997; pp 40-68.
11. Golden Scott W et al; Vacuum Column, Troubleshooting; ECPD; Vol. 60; pp 218-230.
12. Refining Processes; Hydrocarbon Processing;
November 2002; p 99.
13. Authors various notes and presentations.

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