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Unit Operations Laboratory Rules-of-Thumb: Chemical Process Design This section contains engineering rules-of-thumb that
Unit Operations Laboratory Rules-of-Thumb: Chemical Process Design This section contains engineering rules-of-thumb that

Unit Operations Laboratory

Rules-of-Thumb: Chemical Process Design

This section contains engineering rules-of-thumb that may be useful for the design problem calculations. Engineering rules-of-thumb are rough estimates that represent the collective experiences of many engineers. While the rules-of-thumb cannot be used in place of detailed economic and process-specific design calculations, they can be used to obtain reasonable estimates of many process parameters. As a result, they may be useful for design parameters which must be chosen by the Planner in the design calculation section of each report. Chemical Process Design

Overview Chemical engineers are often responsible for the design, construction, and operation of chemical plants and processes. Design engineers are constantly searching for information that will aid them in these tasks. Engineering publicatios, process data from existing equipment, laboratory and pilot-plant studies are just a few of the many sources of information that design engineers must use. It is important for students to learn the difference between "theoretical" designs and "practical designs". Design calculations must often be modified by engineers to reflect economic, safety, construction, and maintenance realities that will affect the design. For example:

Design calculation for a reactor might show that the optimum pipe diameter is D = 3.43 inches. A survey of supplier catalogs will quickly show that schedule-40 steel pipe is not manufactured with this diameter. The design engineer must then choose between either the 3.07 or 3.55 inch diameter pipe that can be easilty obtained from the vendor.

Design calculations for a distillation column might show that a 600 ft tower is required to achieve the specified product separation. The maximum height of towers are generally limited to about 175 ft, however, because of wind-loading and construction considerations. A 600 ft tower would therefore need to be built in several different sections if alternative designs were not available.

You should strive to achieve as much realism as possible in your design calculations.

Chemical Process Design: Rules-of-Thumb


ChEn 5401 Design Tips:

For students who have not yet taken the department's design course, the rules-of-thumb in this section have been taken from two books that are currently available at Walter Library:

Chemical Process Equipment: Selection and Design Stanely M. Walas, Butterworths, Boston, MA 1988 Walter Reference: TP157.W334 1988 Plant Design and Economics for Chemical Engineers, 4th Ed.

M.S. Peters and K.D. Timmerhaus, McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY,


Walter Reserve: TP155.5 .P4 1991 Typical Specifications for Utilities in a Process Plant

1. Steam (Low Pressure): 15-30 psig, Steam (High Pressure): 100 psig.

2. Cooling Water: Supplied at 90 °F from a cooling tower, and returned at 110-120 °F.

3. Cooling Air: Supplied at 80-100 °F and returned at 100-140 °F.

4. Compressed Air: 45 or 150 psig.

5. Instrument Air: 45 psig, 0 °F dewpoint.

6. Electricity: 1-100 hp, 220-550 V.

Go back to the top of the page. Piping and Flow Rates

1. Schedule 40 steel pipe is the most common. Higher pressures require higher schedule number (i.e. thicker walls).


Globe valves are used for control. Gate valves are for most other services.

4. In large or complicated piping networks, the optimum size of the pipe depends on many different factors (e.g., relative costs of capital investments, power, maintenance, etc.). These types of calculations are beyond the scope of this course--if you need to do them, however, Perry's and/or Peters & Timmerhaus will point you in the right direction.

For small piping installations, however, the following rules-of-thumb are sufficiently accurate:

Type of fluid

Type of flow

Velocity (ft/sec)


Inlet to pump


Process Line or Pump Discharge


Viscous Liquid

Inlet to pump


Process Line or Pump Discharge








Go back to the top of the page. Pumps As chemical engineers, you will most likely encounter two different types of pumps:

1. Centrifugal pumps, and

2. Positive-displacement pumps.

Centrifugal pumps are more common, but positive-displacement are used to achieve high pressures. I. Centrifugal Pumps A centrifugal pump, in its simplest form, consists of an impeller rotating inside a casing. The impeller imparts kinetic energy to the fluid. The velocity head, which is created by moving fluid from the low- velocity center to the high-velocity edge of the impeller, is converted into pressure head when the fluid leaves the pump. Centrifugal pumps are simple to construct, low cost, and deliver the fluid at a uniform pressure without shocks or pulsations. In addition, they can handle liquids which contain large amounts of suspended materials. Centrifugal pumps CAN be throttled (partly shut off) on the discharge side to control the flow rate of the material being pumped. the pump. For more information about centrifugal pumps, go to the pump tutorial.

II. Positive-Displacement Pumps There are two types of positive-displacement pumps:

1. Reciprocating Pumps The chamber is a stationary cylinder. The liquid is drawn into the cylinder by the withdrawal of a piston. The liquid is forced out of the cylinder on the return stroke.

2. Rotary Pumps The chamber moves from the inlet to the discharge and back again. In a gear rotary pump, for example, two intermeshing gears rotate; the liquid is trapped in the spaces between the teeth and forced out at the discharge.

Reciprocating and rotary pumps can be used to very high pressures, whereas centrifugal pumps are limited in their head and are used for lower pressures. Reciprocating and rotary pumps CANNOT be throttled (partly shut off) on the discharge side--pumping against a closed valve will damage the pump! To change the flow rate, the speed of the motor must be adjusted--this is difficult to do using an electric motor (it gets very expensive!). Go back to the top of the page. Distillation and Gas Absorption

1. The optimum reflux ratio is generally 1.2-1.5 times the minimum reflux ratio.

2. The optimum number of trays is about twice the minimum number of trays, (N m ).

3. It is advisable to choose a safety factor of about 10% the number of trays calculated by the best available means.

4. Commercial towers are limited to a height of about 175 ft (maximum) because of wind loading and construction considerations.

5. Typical tray efficiencies for distillations are 60-90% for light hydrocarbons and aqueous solutions.

6. Typical tray efficiencies for gas absorption and stripping are 10-20%.

7. For vapor-liquid contacting: the height-equivalent-to-a-theoretical-plate (HETP) is 1.3-1.8 ft for 1-inch pall rings and 2.5-3.0 ft for 2-inch pall rings.

8. Packed towers are typically designed to operate near 70% of the flooding rate and below the loading rate.

Go back to the top of the page. Liquid-Liquid Extraction

1. The dispersed phase in a liquid-liquid extraction column should be the phase that has the higher volumetric flow rate. In equipment that is subject to backmixing, however, the dispersed phase should be the material which has the smaller volumetric flow rate.

very rarely "pure"). NOTE: This is why you have to measure the concentration of acetic acid in the toluene feed for the liquid-liquid extraction lab.

3. You will not recover 100% of the product from a liquid-liquid extraction column! Columns are typically designed to recover 90-99% of the product. High-value products would be closer to 99%.

1. Dissolved solids cause the boiling point of a solution to increase. The boiling point elevation can produce differences of 3-10 °F between the solution and the saturated vapor.

2. For appreciable boiling point elevations, the optimum number of effects in series for a forward-feed evaporator is 4-6 effects. Mechanical vapor recompression can be used to reduce the number of stages.

3. For small boiling point elevations, the optimum number of effects in series for a forward-feed evaporator is 8-10 effects.

4. The steam economy of an N-stage evaporator is approximately 0.8N lb- evaporated-liquid / lb-of-supplied-steam.

5. Interstage steam pressures may be raised using with either steam jet compressors (20-30% efficiency) or with mechanical compressors (70-75% efficiency).

Go back to the top of the page. Mixing and Agitation Many chemical engineering operations are dependent, to a great extent, on effective agitation and/or mixing of fluids.

Agitation--forcing a fluid (by mechanical means) to flow in a circulatory or other pattern inside a vessel.

Mixing--causing two or more separate phases to be randomly distributed through one another.

Some of the potential applications of mixing and agitation include:

Blend two miscible liquids,

Dissolve a solid in a liquid,

Disperse a gas in a liquid as fine bubbles,

Suspend fine particles in a liquid, or

Agitate a fluid to increase the heat transfer between the fluid and a surface.

Design rules-of-thumb for mixing and agitation processes:

1. Typical horsepower (hp) requirements in agitation processes:


hp / 1000 gal

Blending or mild mixing

Homogeneous chemical reaction

Liquid-Liquid Mixtures

Liquid-Gas Mixtures

Slurries (to keep solids suspended)

0.2-0.5 0.5-1.5 5 5-10 10

2. Proportions of a stirred tank relative to the tank diameter, D:


Liquid-level = D;


Turbine-impeller diameter = 0.3-0.5 D;


Impeller level above bottom = D / 3;


Impeller-blade width = 0.075-0.125 D;


Four vertical baffles with width = D / 12.

See Geankoplis Table 3.4-1 and Figure 3.4-3 for more information.

Go back to the top of the page. Heat Exchangers & Fouling Coefficients

1. Heat exchangers typically use 3/4-inch OD tubes; 1-inch triangular spacing; 16 ft length.

2. Typical pressure drops across heat exchangers are:

Boiling = 1.5 psi, and Other Services = 3-9 psi.

3. The minimum temperature approach is 20 °F (normal coolants) and 10 °F or less (refrigerants).

4. Typical conditions for cooling water:

Inlet temperature = 90 °F, and

Outlet temperature = 110-120 °F.

For estimating the approximate magnitudes of the overall heat transfer coefficients, U, in shell-and-tube heat exchangers, you can refer to the following values:


U (W/m²-K)

1140 - 1700

Water to Organic Liquids 570 - 1140

Water to Water

Water to Condensing Steam

1420 - 22700

Steam to Boiling Water 1420

- 2270

Water to Air (Finned Tube)


- 230

Light Organics to Light Organics

230 -


Heavy Organics to Heavy Organics

- NOTE: Conversion: 1 btu/h-ft²-°F = 5.6873 W/m²-K



Fouling In practice, heat transfer surfaces do not remain clean for very long. Dirt, soot, and various deposits form on one or both sides of heat transfer surfaces and/or tubing. Like any other material, these deposits add additional resistances to the flow of heat and reduce the overall heat transfer coefficient, U. For example:

Coke and other substances can deposit on surfaces in petroleum processes,

Algea can grow in cooling towers and biological processes, and

Corrosion products can form on many different surfaces--seriously affecting the resistance to heat transfer.

The effect of these deposits (i.e. "fouling") is generally taken into account by adding resistances, 1/h di and 1/h do , to account for the fouling inside the tube, h di , and for the fouling outside the tube, h do , in the equation for the overall heat transfer coeficient, U. See Eq. 4.3-17 in Geankoplis' text. Typical values for the fouling coefficients are shown below:


h d (W/m²-K)

Distilled and Seawater


City Water


Muddy Water




Vaporizing Liquids


Gas Oils and Vegetable Oils


NOTE: Conversion: 1 btu/h-ft²-°F = 5.6873 W/m²-K Go back to the top of the page. Heat Transfer Coefficients The following table contains approximate magnitudes for the heat transfer coefficient for various mechanisms:


h (W/m²-K)

Still Air




Moving Air

11.3 -


Moving Water

280 - 17000

Moving Hydrocarbons




Boiling Liquids

1700 - 28000

Condensing Steam

5700 - 28000

Condensing Organics

1100 - 2800

NOTE: Conversion: 1 btu/h-ft²-°F = 5.6873 W/m²-K Go back to the top of the page. Estimating Tower Heights and Diameters

The basic question you need to ask is this: If the flow rate of my experiment is X (gal/hr), but the flow rate for my design is Y (gal/hr), what tower diameter (distillation or extraction) will give me the same conditions in each column?" The second question you need to ask is: What tower height do I need to achieve the specified product concentrations? BEWARE: Many students just grab the first number that they calculate with little or no thought to what it actually implies. For example, if your calculations yield a 9-mile high tower, with a 10-inch diameter, the design is clearly not feasible! You need to rethink the problem or your assumptions or both. As a general rule: Towers are limited to a maximum height of 175 ft (see the distillation rules-of-thumb). If your design needs to be taller than that, the tower would be built in several sections--which would, of course, affect how many pumps you might need, etc. Go back to the top of the page. Estimating the Yearly Production Rate Many of the design problems ask for an estimate of the yearly production rate.

It goes without saying that the absolute maximum production rate

would be achieved if the process operated 24 hours/day, 365


Process equipment needs to be repaired, replaced, serviced, factories


this is not a realistic choice.

shut down for holidays, etc. In addition, it may not be wise to run the process at 100% capacity because it may lead to excessive wear on the equipment.

A typical value is 90% or 328 days/year.

While this type of information is sometimes unknown (and probably beyond the scope of this course)--it is something you should start to think about. Capital equipment costs, maintenance, and economics are an important part of engineering. Go back to the top of the page. Product Recovery and Yields In some of the design problems, you are asked to create a process that will recover some sort of product (e.g., pharmeacutical products,

copper, etc.). It is up to you to decide how much of the product will be recovered.

It is impossible to recover 100% of the product!

Typically, processes will be designed to recover 90-99% of the desired product. For low-value products, the yield would probably be around 90%, but for high-value products, the yield be much closer to 99%. As an additional caution, you may discover that the outlet product concentration in a separation process (e.g., distillation, extraction, etc) is limited by the equilibrium conditions which might exist in the outlet stream. For example, in distillation processes, the formation of a binary azeotrope may make it impossible to produce a nearly pure product.

Go back to the top of the page. Specifying Pumps for your Design Project In some of the design problems, you are asked to specify the pumps that will be required to move fluids within your process. Many students calculate pump sizes which are much too small for their design project. This is because students rarely account for the pressure losses which occur because of valves. A control valve, for example, requires a pressure drop of at least 10 psi to maintain good control. These types of losses will affect your design calculations!" The pump tutorial has been written to help lead you through these types of calculations. As a rough estimate, look at the pumps that you are using in the laboratory. If the pumps on the experiments are much larger than your calculations, you have probably neglected something important (valve losses? friction losses?). Go back to the top of the page. Return to Unit Ops Lab Home Page

Copyright 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science. All Rights Reserved.

Author: Christopher J. Duda Revised: October 2, 2001 by: Raul A. Caretta URL: http://www3.cems.umn.edu/courses/chen4402/ The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.