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Approaches to simulating distillation and absorption

Distillation of spirits has been practiced since the time of the ancient Greeks who ascribed sacred powers to the liquids that resulted from refining wine using stills such as the one shown in Figure 1. Dionysian cults incorporated these early spirits into religious rituals. Distillation and other phase separation processes have come a long way since then, and so have the ways they’ve been analyzed and computed.

Figure 2 shows the progression of models and computational approaches to the design, analysis, and optimization of stagewise separation processes. Prior to 1925, distillation and absorption columns weren’t really designed in the modern sense of the word. They were constructed using experience embodied in rules of thumb. The work of McCabe and Thiele1 altered all that, allowing designs to be done rationally, at least for binary systems. There evolved a group of new concepts such as the notion of key components, that allowed even multicomponent systems to be handled graphically. Slide rules and graph paper yielded to programmable calculators allowing simple separations to be done digitally, although still on the basis of McCabe and Thiele’s ideal-stage concept. With digital computers, it became possible to do these calculations extremely rapidly and efficiently; however, it also became possible to treat a tower full of trays or packing on a mass transfer rate basis, just like heat exchangers had been done for the better part of the previous century. This was a radically new concept and a huge advance in separation process simulation. The first mass transfer ratebased models were developed in the mid-1980’s, more than 30 years ago. Unfortunately, undergraduate education has remained rooted in the McCabe-Thiele era with the regrettable result that for most chemical engineers the antiquated ideal-stage retains its now unjustified description as state-of-the-art.

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Approaches to simulating distillation and absorption

Distillation of spirits has been practiced since the time of the ancient Greeks who ascribed sacred powers to the liquids that resulted from refining wine using stills such as the one shown in Figure 1. Dionysian cults incorporated these early spirits into religious rituals. Distillation and other phase ...


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