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Plug Flow Reactor

Product Description
By: Matthew Grisewood

A plug flow reactor is a pipe-shaped tank where a chemical reaction

takes place with walls coated with a catalyst and an inlet flow of pure

To start, here is a simple illustration of what a typical plug flow reactor may
look like:

Inlet Flow Outlet Flow

Figure 1: A simple schematic of a plug flow reactor. A reactant is inserted into the tank via the inlet flow.
The reactant is converted to product in the reactor, and the product flows out of the reactor by the
outlet flow.

Reactors are used in the chemical industry for millions of

WHAT IS A processes, from the production of high-fructose corn syrup
(HFCS) to the formation of polyester and everywhere in
PLUG between. There are many different types of reactors due to
the numerous different factors that can control the formation
FLOW of product during the reaction. It is the responsibility of
REACTOR? chemical engineers to run these reactions so that the amount
of product can be maximized while the cost is minimized.
One of the many different types of reactors is the plug flow
reactor (PFR). Plug flow reactors are an idealized scenario
where there is no mixing involved in the reactor. It is the
opposite of the continuous-stirred tank reactor (CSTR), where
the reaction mixture is perfectly mixed. Since a PFR is an
idealized reactor, it does not truly exist in the real world. It is
impossible to have no mixing at all during a reaction, but the
amount of mixing in the reactor can be minimized. There are
several advantages to minimizing the amount of mixing so
that the reactor closely resembles a PFR. These advantages
will be explained in further detail later. The plug flow reactor
has an inlet flow composed of the reactants. The reactant
flows into the reactor and is then converted into the product
by a certain chemical reaction. The product flows out of the
reactor through the outlet flow. An overview of the reactor can
be seen in Figure 1. In many scenarios, a catalyst is involved
in the reaction. A catalyst is a substance that is not involved in
the chemical reaction but helps the reaction proceed at a
faster rate. In biological reactions, an enzyme, which is a
biological catalyst, coats the wall, and substrate is imported
through the inlet flow. A diagram of how the enzyme coats the
interior of the wall can be seen below in Figure 2.

Inlet Flow Outlet Flow

Figure 2: An interior view of a plug flow reactor. The above diagram approximates what a plug
flow diagram would look like if it were to be sliced in half. The large rectangles show the inner and
outer surfaces of the reactor. The reactants come in through the inlet flow (represented by
squares) and react to form the product (represented by triangles) which is eliminated from the
reactor through the outlet flow. The reaction occurs with the use of a catalyst (represented by
circles), which are attached to the interior wall of the PFR. The actual reactions that are taking
place are represented by double arrows in the reactor. Note that the reactant molecules must
combine with the catalyst molecules at the interior wall of the reactor since the catalyst is not
allowed to move from the wall.
Plug flow reactors are frequently used in the chemical
WHEN industry due to the non-mixing property of the reactors. It
may seem counter intuitive that a non-mixed reactor would
ARE PLUG be more advantageous than a mixed reactor such as a CSTR,
FLOW but this is frequently the case. We will examine this
phenomenon later. Plug flow reactors are frequently used in
REACTORS biological reactions when the substrate flows into the reactor
and is converted to product with the use of an enzyme.
USED? Since plug flow reactors have an inlet and outlet stream, they
are useful for continuous production. The streams are
opposite of a batch reactor, which is a reactor that has a
constant volume and has no incoming or outgoing streams.
Some of the times when plug flow reactors are most useful
are for continuous production, large-scale reactions, or fast

One of the most important problems in the chemical

engineering field is the choice of a certain type of reactor.
OVERVIEW There are many different types of reactors, and we have
already listed some of them (PFR, CSTR, batch). It is
OF important for chemical engineers to analyze the production
REACTOR process and determine which type of reactor will maximize
profit. It is also useful to determine whether changing
ANALYSIS process variables will help in the production of a greater
amount of product.
In any reactor, there is something that limits the rate of
production. The occurrence that limits the rate of production
REACTOR in the process is known as the limitation. There are three
major kinds of limitation in reactors: mass transfer limitation,
LIMITATION thermodynamic limitation, and kinetic limitation. Let’s start
with kinetic limitation.

Kinetic limitation refers to the situation when the reaction

taking place in the reactor limits the rate of production.
Reaction kinetics is based on concentration, which is the
KINETIC amount of mass per unit volume. A typical reaction rate may
LIMITATION look something like this:

𝑟 = 𝑘1 𝑆 𝑇 for the reaction 𝑆+𝑇 𝑃

In this equation, [S] and [T] are the respective concentrations

of the reactants in the chemical reaction, and k1 is the rate
constant, which is determined based on experimental data
of the reaction. In kinetic limitation, the concentrations of the
reactants may be low or the rate constant may be low,
resulting in a slow reaction rate. The reaction rate determines
the rate at which product is made. Now, let’s talk about mass
transfer limitation.

Mass transfer limitation refers to the situation where the

MASS movement of reactant to the enzyme controls the formation
of product. Mass transfer limitation is most commonly found
TRANSFER in heterogeneous reactions, which are reactions between
two different chemical phases, such as a liquid and a gas.
LIMITATION Sometimes, the reactant does not reach the enzyme very
quickly, and the slowest step in the product formation is
transferring the mass from one end where the reactant is
plentiful (known as the bulk) to the surface of the enzyme or
the catalyst. When a reactor is mass transfer limited, there is
a large difference between the concentration of reactant at
the bulk and concentration at the surface. If a reactor is mass
transfer limited, increasing the flow rate will increase the
formation of product because the reactant will meet the
catalyst more quickly. In mass transfer limitation, the
movement of the reactant from the bulk to the surface of the
enzyme is what determines the rate of production.

If a process is neither mass transfer limited nor kinetically

THERMODYNAMIC limited, the process must be thermodynamically limited.
Thermodynamics governs all processes if they are given
LIMITATION time to react. Any chemical reaction can only proceed as far
as thermodynamics will allow. Once the reaction has
reached equilibrium, the rate of formation of product cannot
be changed unless the thermodynamics of the situation are
changed. Changes in the thermodynamics of the reaction
can be predicted by Le Chatelier’s Principle. Le Chatelier’s
Principle states that a change in the pressure, concentration,
or temperature of the system at equilibrium will shift the
equilibrium to undo the change that was done. In
thermodynamic limitation, the reaction mixture is given
plenty of time to react, and the reaction will proceed to
equilibrium. This equilibrium is what determines the rate of

Any one of the above limitations can govern the rate of

WHEN IS A production for a given process. The question then becomes
“When is a PFR most advantageous?” In thermodynamic
PLUG limitation, the reactant is given plenty of time to react, and
equilibrium governs the rate of production of product. A PFR
FLOW may be useful, but it will not vary drastically since the reaction
REACTOR is at equilibrium already. The situation is similar when
discussing mass transfer. The use of a plug flow reactor may
MOST be advantageous, but the reactor does not itself increase the
rate at which concentration at the bulk reaches the
concentration at the surface of the enzyme or catalyst. A plug
flow reactor is highly advantageous when the reaction is
kinetically limited. The reason that a PFR is so advantageous
when dealing with a kinetically limited reaction is because
the concentration starts very high. The reaction rate is
dependent on the concentration of reactant, and the
concentration of the reactant in the plug flow reactor is very
high since the reaction mixture is not agitated to mix the
solution. A plug flow reactor is therefore more advantageous
than a CSTR because the reactant is immediately diluted to a
constant lower reactant concentration when it enters the

There are many scenarios that must be considered when

deciding on which type of reactor to use for a certain
CONCLUSION process. A plug flow reactor is one of many types of reactors.
It is most useful when the reaction is not allowed to reach
equilibrium, and the reaction is kinetically limited by the
reaction rate. There are exceptions to the fact that a PFR is
always better than a CSTR when the reaction is kinetically
limited. However, most of the time a PFR does have a higher
rate of product production than a CSTR if the reaction is
kinetically limited. It is still necessary to analyze the details of
the process before deciding that a plug flow reactor is the
correct choice for the process.