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Ind. Eng. Chem. Res.

1993,32, 2201-2207 2201

Adsorptive Separation of Propylene-Propane Mixtures

H a r r i Jarvelint and J a m e s R. Fair’
Separations Research Program, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78712

The separation of propylene-propane mixtures is of great commercial importance and is carried

out by fractional distillation. It is claimed to be the most energy-intensive distillation practiced
in the United States. The purpose of this paper is to describe experimental work that suggests a
practical alternative to distillation for separating the C3 hydrocarbons: adsorption. As studied, the
process involves three adsorptive steps: initial separation with molecular sieves with heavy dilution
with an inert gas; separation of propylene and propane separately from the inert gas, using activated
carbon; and drying of the product streams with any of several available desiccants. The research
information presented here deals with the initial step and includes both equilibrium and kinetic
data. Isotherms are provided for propylene and propane adsorbed on three zeolites, activated
alumina, silica gel, and coconut-based activated carbon. Breakthrough data are provided for both
adsorption and regeneration steps for the zeolites, which were found to be superior to the other
adsorbents for breakthrough separations. A flow diagram for the complete proposed process is

The separation of propylene-propane mixtures is one using molecular sieves. Downstream adsorption steps
of the most important operations in the petrochemical separate the propylene and propane from nitrogen and
industry. Such mixtures usually result from the thermal remove water vapor introduced in the process. The work
or catalytic cracking of hydrocarbons, and the majority of in our laboratories has been done with research grade
them represent coproducts with ethylene. Their separa- chemicals, and no hydrocarbon diluents (e.g., ethane and
tion is of great economic consequence, since the separated Cq compounds) have been used. However, allowance for
propylene has many uses, one of the most important being diluents is straightforward and will be discussed. A flow
as monomer feedstock for polypropylene elastomer pro- diagram of the envisioned process is shown in Figure 1.
duction. For most end uses the propylene must have a
purity of at least 99.5 mol % . The propane fraction can Previous Work
be recycled to the cracking step or used separately, e.g.,
as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for household heating. The adsorptive separation of propylene-propane mix-
The conventional method for separating the propylene tures has been of interest for some years, but very little
propane mixture is fractional distillation. The relative of a nature useful for design has been published. In most
volatility for the mixture is in the range of 1.09-1.15 cases, individual component isotherm data and break-
(Laurance and Swift, 1972), depending on composition through kinetics have been measured, but little success
and pressure of operation. A large number of contacting with mixtures has been found. Lewis et al. (1950)included
stages are required (over 1001, and the associated high propylene and propane in a series of adsorption studies
reflux ratio requires a large input of energy. The U.S. using silica gel and Columbia G activated carbon adsor-
Department of Energy has reported that the propylene/ bents. Their work was limited to isotherm measurements,
propane separation is the most energy-intensive single with the indication that silica gel would be the more
distillation practiced commercially (Wiley, 1992). While selective adsorbent if mixtures were to be used. In 1968
the distillation separation can be carried out at above- Peterson et al. proposed separating the Cs mixture with
ambient temperatures, where water can be used as the zeolite molecular sieves, finding the 5A type to give
coolant for the condenser, it is more economical to operate preferential adsorption of propylene. Their scheme was
at subambient temperatures with a refrigerated overhead to use an eluent such as butane or pentane for regeneration,
vapor, often utilizing heat pumping techniques. The ratio followed by recovery of propylene by distillation. Their
of propylene to propane in the mixture varies according experiments were made at temperatures of 105-175 “C
to cracking conditions, but for research purposes the and a pressure of 1450 kPa, with bulk mixtures of propane
composition can be assumed to be equimolar. The and propylene, under which conditions the polymerization
separation operation is often called “C3 splitting”. of propylene on the zeolite was a problem. Their work
The present paper describes an alternate approach to emphasized the regeneration step; in fact, no breakthrough
distillation for making the C3 separation: selective ad- data for the initial propanepropylene adsorption were
sorption in the gas phase. Studies of the kinetics and given.
equilibria for propane and propylene, singly and in Smith and Burnet (1971) explored the individual
admixture, have been carried out at The University of component adsorptions on Columbia LC carbon, and
Texas at Austin and will be described. Although pre- reported both equilibrium and kinetic data. They also
liminary evaluations of the total adsorptive separation deduced effective mass-transfer coefficients for the ad-
process have been conducted, the emphasis here will be sorption step. Friederich (1970) measured mixture iso-
on the research results of the adsorption steps. These therms for propylene-propane, and his data were used by
results should enable others to make their own evaluations Brown et al. (1978)to model breakthrough results for each
according to their specific cost conditions. of the components. Costaet al. (1981) measured individual
In essence, in the proposed process the propylene/ and mixture isotherms for propylene and propane as well
propane mixture is diluted with nitrogen and separated as other binary mixtures on Witco L-1667 carbon, and
modeled their results using a real adsorption theory;
+ Neete Oy,Porvoo, Finland. excellent results were obtained using Wilson and UNI-
0888-5885/93/2632-2201$04.00/00 1993 American Chemical Society
2202 Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 32, No. 10, 1993



CONDENSE ~ ~ ] - - P R O P f l . E N E


Figure 1. Block flow diagram for the proposed process to separate propylene-propane mixtures by three-stage adsorption.




V.22A -0-
c-121 h

4 I I 1


-.- MAX.
2160 kPa
8.S an
1.12 m


Figure 2. Flow diagram of the experimental equipment for adsorption and desorption breakthrough measurements. Key symbole: AV =
automatic valve;FIC = flow indicating controller;FRN = furnace;PI = pressure indicator;PIC = pressure indicating controller;TI = temperatutre

QUAC models for the ternary (including adsorbent) More recently the technology and economics of the Ca
systems. Glanz and Findenegg (1984)studied equilibrium separation have been discussed by Kumar et al. (1992).
adsorption on graphitized carbon black and found only a They emphasized the commercial importance of the
weak preferential adsorption of propane from propylene- separation and proposed a hybrid adsorptionldistillation
propane mixtures. Shu et al. (1990) studied a variable scheme to provide high-purity streams of propane and
temperature stepwise desorption of propylenelpropane propylene. Entering propanelpropylene would be given
mixtures from 13X molecular sieves, showing that with an adsorptive pretreatment to remove contaminants, and
careful control of temperature, and without the use of then the bulk mixture would be separated by an appro-
diluents, a relatively concentrated stream of propylene priate adsorbent. The total process scheme is "suggested",
could be removed during a portion of the regeneration but may have some backup experimental information that
cycle. has been kept confidential.
Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 32, No. 10,1993 2203
Table I. Properties of Adsorbents
molecular sieves activated activated activated
silica gel alumina carbon
type 4A 5A 13X 41 ST-4191-1 ST-AWA-13
&aP+ E E E G S G
particle size 1/8 in. 1/8 in. 1/8 in. 3/9me& 3.35mm 4/8 me&
bulk density, kg/m8 690 690 620 690 I40 430
nowce Union Carbide Union Carbide Union Carbide Davienn ALCOA Sorb-Tech
(1 E = extrudates; G = granular; S = npherea.

Supporting the second step of the process herein

proposed are the kinetics of the propanelnitrogen sepa-
ration reported by Schork and Fair (1988) and Huang and
Fair (1988);in these studies Witco JXC carbon was used.
The present work includes the propylene1 nitrogen s e p
aration over activated carbon. Removal of water vapor
from propylene and propane by adsorption on activated
alumina or molecular sieves has been treated widely in
the journal and trade literature and does not merit further
experimental verification.
Guides to other literature adsorption equilibria for
propane and propylene have been published by Ray (1983)
and Valenzuela and Myers (1989).

Experimental Work
The propylenelpropane breakthrough measurements
were made in a continuous-flow pilot system, a flow
diagram of which is shown in Figure 2. The system can
be operated up to 427 "C and 2169 kPa, is highly
instrumented, and in operation is controlled by an Intel
SYP-310computer with extensive data logging capability.
Thiscomputer accepts allof the processsignals,maintains
a digital log of all variables, and updates the signals every
10 s. The inlet gas mixture is handled by blending valves
and checked by mass flowmeters and chromatographic
analyses. Samples can be taken at a number of places,
and for the present work the samples were analyzed by a
Varian 3700 gas chromatograph with a flame ionization
detector (FID). No attempt was made to recycle the
effluent gas. D E T U 'I'
The heart of the svstem is the adsorntion bed. shown
in Figure 3. It has & inside diameter i f 84.7 mm and a Figure 3. Details of the adsorber.
bed length of 1219 mm. Intermediate bed thermocouples hPssure
are provided, for following temperature gradients. The nansdueer-,
bed can be run essentially adiabatically through the use
of insulation and feedback shell heaters. The adsorbent
is supported on a perforated plate as shown in the figure.
All metal parta of the system are fabricated from type 316
stainless steel.
Breakthrough runs were made in the conventional
manner. Inlet concentrations of hydrocarbons were in
the range of 1.C-3.5 mol %, with nitrogen as the carrier
gas. For most cases, breakthrough was continued to full
bed saturation, as will be presented later in appropriate
plots. Regeneration runs were made with hot nitrogen at
150-200 "C, with adsorbate removal being monitored by and pump Cold
chromatographic analyses. w
Six adsorbenta were included in the study: types 4A, Figure 4. Equilibrium call for isotherm measurements.
5A,and 13X zeolite molecular sieves; silica gel; type ST-
4191-1 activated alumina; and Sorb-Tech AWX-13 acti- with the same impurities. One analysis of the propylene
vated carbon. Sources and essential properties of these showed the following: propane, 5580 ppmw; ethane, 97
materials are shown in Table I. ppmw; isobutane, <10 ppmw; n-butane, <10 ppmw.
The adsorbates were all research grade in purity. Equilibrium isotherms were measured in a gravimetric-
Nitrogen, propane, and propylene were obtained from type sorption cell. The adsorbent pan was suspended from
Union Carbide Corporation. For the propane, the sum of a Ruskaquartz spring,and the cell was jacketed to maintain
impurities was less than 1.0%by volume; these impurities a controlled temperature of 25 OC. A calibrated cathe-
were stated by the manufacturer to be ethane, propylene, tometer was used to measure the extension of the spring.
isobutane, and n-butane. Propylene was also CP grade Care was taken to ensure that equilibrium had been
2204 Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 32, No. 10, 1993
ProDane 1 Propylene

4 I F

l t -I

0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1
0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8

Pressure, bar Pressure, bar

1.6 3

E"E 1

-ti- 0.8 13X

s111cr ad g
Pe 0.6 A d . Alumln8
0 0.02 0.04 0.06 0.08 0.1 0 0.02 0.04 0.06 0.08 0.1

Pressure, bar Pressure, bar

Figure 5. Propane isotherms for lower and higher capacity ranges. Figure 6. Propylene isotherms for lower and higher capacityranges.
Temperature = 25 "C. Temperature = 25 O C .
Table 11. Langmuir Equation Constants for Propane and
reached, and some experiments were allowed to run for as Propylene
long as 2 h so that successive readings did not differ.
Hysteresis effects were not measured, since the adsorption adsorbent adsorbate mi bi
step was under study. The equilibrium measurements ZMS 4A propane 0.226 9.770
were confirmed by the breakthrough run loadings. propylene 2.092 95.096
A diagram of the equilibrium measurement system is ZMS 5A propane 1.919 100.223
propylene 2.436 147.260
given in Figure 4. ZMS 13X propane 2.130 55.412
propylene 2.618 100.OOO
Results activated carbon propane 4.239 58.458
propylene 4.889 34.915
Measured isotherms at 25 "Care shown for propane in Langmuir equation: ni = mjbipJ(l+bipi), whereni = equilibrium
Figure 5 and for propylene in Figure 6. The differences adsorption of speciesi,mmovg;mi = saturationcapacityof adsorbent
in capacity of the adsorbents is striking. Activated carbon for species i, mmol/g; and pi = partial pressure, bar.
has the greatest holding power but suffers from a low
discrimination between the two adsorbates. Silica gel has the longest runs to breakthrough. The results of com-
intermediate capacity but inadequate discrimination. The bination adsorption/desorption runs made it clear that
capacity of activated alumina is too low to be of further significant amounts of dilutent nitrogen would be required
interest. The adsorbents passing this preliminary screen- for the development of a practical cyclic operation. Also,
ing are the three molecular sieves. Relative capacities for these runs indicated finally that only the molecular sieves
these adsorbents taken from Figures 5 and 6 are shown in should be considered further for the development of a
Figure 7. From these plots it would appear that adsorption separation process.
would be a good candidate for separation, possibly even
at bulk concentration conditions. Langmuir constants for Adsorption/regeneration breakthrough data for molec-
the sieves, with comparison values for activated carbon, ular sieves are shown in Figures 9-11. They have been
are given in Table 11. compared with predictions using a comprehensive break-
A total of 86 breakthrough runs were made with through model (Chu, 1991)which accounts for nonlinearity
propylene-propane mixtures plus 47 with propane and 39 of isotherm, mixture equilibrium, axial and radial diffusion,
with propylene. In all cases, nitrogen was the diluent. A and departure from isothermality. A representative
representative set of breakthrough curves for propylene comparison is shown in Figure 12, where the curves of
is shown in Figure 8. The shapes of the curves indicate Figure 10(adsorption)are followed closely by the simulated
that the bed of 4A sieves exhibited the poorest mass- results.
transfer characteristics, and the 5A and 13X sieves had A study of the breakthrough plots reveals the following:
Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 32,No. 10,1993 2206
13 X


c- 1.5
.- -e- Proprno
-m- Propylono
$ 1 -m- Propylono


0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1
0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1

Pressure, bar
I I 1 #

5A Actlvated Carbon
I l l
zE 2 c

r" 1.5
0 -8- Proprno -a- Proprno
t i +Propylono -e- Propylon.

0 0 3 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1
0 0.2 0.4 0.6

Pressure, bar
0.8 1

Pressure, bar
Figure 7. Pure component isotherms for propane and propylene on A, SA, and 13X molecular sieves and activated carbon. Temperature
= 25 OC.
during which a mixture of Cs's is removed) is shorter for
the 13X sieves.
Thus, for preliminary evaluations, 13X sieves were
chosen for further process development work.
As shown in Figure 1,the downstream adsorption steps
are conventional and involve the use of activated carbon
for the first step and any of the common desiccants for the
second step. The effluents from step 1 adsorption and
regeneration consist of nitrogen-propane and nitrogen-
propylene, respectively. For short periods these effluents
contain mixed Cis and thus must be recycled. As an
example, for 13X during the first 100 min or so only
0 100 200 300 propane is removed from the bed. The bed is then shifted
to regeneration where, for 10 min or so, both propane and
time, min propylene are evolved. Following that, only propane and
Figure8. Compoaitabreakthrough data for propylene. Conditions: nitrogen emerge from the bed. The possibilities of cyclic
feed temperature = 23 O C ; pressure = 269 E a ; nitrogen flow rate = operation are obvious.
12.6 kg/h; propylene concentration = 1.18 mol %. Normalized The propanenitrogen stream (from the initial adsorp-
concentration is with respect to feed. tion step) is separated by adsorption on activated carbon
1. The 4A sieves show early breakthrough and low mass followed by steam regeneration. Likewise, the propylene
transfer-rates. For regeneration, separation is excellent. nitrogen stream (from the initial step regeneration) is
2. The 5A and 13X sieves show about 70 min of sharp separated by carbon adsorption plus steam regeneration.
separation on adsorption, m d excellent separation on The kinetics of the adsorption step are well documented
regeneration. The delay time for regeneration (period by the present work as well as by the studies of Schork
2206 Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 32, No. 10, 1993
2,0 1
I Regeneration
--s 0,8
f 0-6
4 Propane
+ Propylene
8 8
0,4 E
4 Propane
+ Propylene

0 100 200 300
Time, min lime, min
Figure 9. Combination adsorption/regeneration data for a propylene-propane mixture on 4A molecular sieves. Conditions for adsorption:
feed temperature = 23 "C; pressure = 269 kPa ;nitrogen flow rate = 12.6 kg/h;inlet propane = 1.185 mol %; inlet propylene = 1.162 mol %.
Conditions for regeneration: inlet nitrogen temperature = 205 "C; pressure = 269 kPa; nitrogen flow rate = 12.4kg/h. Normalized concentration
is with respect to feed.
2 2
I Regeneration I

0 100

lime, min


0 100 200
Time, mln

Figure 10. Combination adsorption/regeneration data for a propylene-propane mixture on 5A molecular sieves. Condiditons for adsorption:
feed temperature = 23 OC; pressure = 269 kPa; nitrogen flow rate = 12.6 kg/h; inlet propane = 1.185 mol %; inlet propylene = 1.162 mol 5%.
Conditions for regeneration: inlet nitrogen temperature = 150"C; pressure = 269 kPa; nitrogen flow rate = 8.85kg/h. Normalized concentration
is with respect to feed.

"1 Regeneration

0 0

'L: 2

E l 0)
8 8
E 1
8 4 Propane
z 4 Propane + Propylene
+ Propylene
0 0
100 200 300 0 100 200 300
Time, min lime, min
Figure 11. Combination adsorption/regeneration data for a propylene-propane mixture on 13X molecular sieves. Conditione for adsorption:
feed temperature = 23 "C; pressure = 269 kPa; inlet propane = 1.185 mol %; inlet propylene = 1.162 mol %. Conditions for regeneration:
inlet nitrogen temperature = 206 OC; pressure = 269 kPa; nitrogen flow rate = 12.4 kg/h. Normalized concentration is with respect to feed.
and Fair (1988) and Huang and Fair (1988). The kinetics effects of diluent Ca and Cq hydrocarbons in commercial
of the steam regeneration have been studied in our propylene-propane mixtures. This has not been studied
laboratory; representative data are shown in Figure 13 experimentally, but one would expect the ethane to move
(Alvarez, 1992). The phase separation between regenerant with the propane stream in the three steps. The distri-
steam and desorbed propane is straightforward, with little bution of C i s would depend, of course, on their degree of
solubility loss of the C3 hydrocarbon in the condensate, unsaturation. Without question, polymerizable com-
but with an effluent propane or propylene that is saturated pounds such as butadiene could not be permitted in the
with water. Hence the need for a final drying step in the feed. n-Butane, as an example of an allowed contaminant,
process. should remain with the propylene stream, on the basis of
The propylene and propane used in these studies are of the Peterson et al. (1968) studies, but this has yet to be
research grade purities. The question can arise over the confirmed.
Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 32,No. 10, 1993 2207
University of Texas at Austin. Individuals making major
J contributions to the work were Jose Luis Bravo, of SRP
and Xavier Py, of Rhhe-Poulenc in France. The authors
also thank Antonio Garcia-Martinez and Antonio Alvarez-
Trevit for assisting with the equilibrium data analysis and
1 .o - for making available steam regeneration results.

0.5 - - -b-
HE Exp.
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inary estimates show that, for a plant separating 50 million Smith, F. B.; Burnet, G. R. DynamicExchangeAdsorptionof Propane-
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Wiley, D. E. (US. Dept. of Energy) Priorities for Research in
three steps a two-bed cyclic operation is feasible. The Separations: A Government Perspective paper presented at the
degree of separation a t each adsorption step is strikingly Miami Beach AIChE Meeting, November 1992.
high, giving substance to the concept that, for a propylene-
propane mixture, very high purities of each compound are
possible. Receiued for reuiew December 28, 1992
Revised manuscript receiued June 22, 1993
Accepted June 25,1993.
This work was sponsored jointly by Neste Oy of Finland 0 Abstract published in Aduance ACS Abstracts, September
and The Separations Research Program (SRP) at The 15, 1993.